Soon only squeamishness is likely to stand in the way of milk and meat from cloned animals reaching the dinner table.
After more than six years of nervous deliberation, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to release a ruling any day now saying that food from clones is as safe as that from animals created through the conventional union of sperm and egg.
Convincing consumers, though, may be a tall order.
Sixty-four percent of Americans polled in 2006 said they still were squeamish about animal cloning nearly a decade after news of the first breakthroughs in the research hit the headlines, according to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
“Though Americans are not well informed about animal cloning, they are overwhelmingly uncomfortable with it,” said Pew’s report (PDF).
Why the jitters if regulators and leagues of scientists say that a glass of milk from a cloned cow is as safe as the same stuff from any ordinary barnyard Bessie?
Clones have been among our favorite science fiction monsters. Take those terrifying dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.”
Then there’s the Prometheus factor. In classic Greek literature, Prometheus argued that he was helping people when he stole fire from heaven and gave it to man. Zeus didn’t see it that way. Prometheus was chained to a rock where an eagle plucked at his liver day by day.
Even today, many people see the creation of life as heaven’s work. In the Pew survey, frequent church-goers expressed the highest levels of discomfort with animal cloning.
Cloning’s image started to turn, though, when a lamb named Dolly stepped before news cameras in 1997. She was the world’s first mammal to be cloned from the single cell of an adult. And she was as cute as any Lambie in the toy box. Cancel the monster effect.
On Dolly’s heels came calves looking exactly like the black and white fixtures on bucolic images of Wisconsin’s landscape. Spectators hailed the arrival of one of the first of those clones at the Minnesota Zoo in 2000.
But would they eat a burger made from the equivalent of that zoo display animal? That’s the tantalizing question FDA’s ruling would leave on the table.
In advance of any public recoil from the ruling, animal cloning companies announced in December that they will set up a tracking system (PDF) so meat packers and processors can know whether or not food they are buying came from clones.
The cloning companies’ customers will be asked to sign affidavits committing to compliance. Their pledges are to be backed by cash deposits that would be refunded once a cloned animal is properly marketed or disposed of. Each animal will come with a unique, registered ID that could be tracked.
“Cloned animals have been extensively studied and found to be safe … however we are happy to assist the supply chain,” said David Faber, president of Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Iowa, one of the nation’s three leading animal cloning companies.
Still, consumer groups object that regulators will have no control over the voluntary system, other companies that might get into cloning wouldn’t be bound by it, and the restrictions wouldn’t apply to the offspring of cloned animals.
“It is much too soon for this controversial technology to be unleashed in the marketplace, especially without requiring it to be labeled,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement on behalf of a coalition of consumer and animal rights groups.
“The FDA should listen to the public instead of the biotech industry,” she said.
Another concern the groups cited is for the well-being of the animals. Early cloning experiments resulted in hundreds of spontaneous abortions and other complications for every healthy animal that was born. Over the years, though, the techniques have improved.
Last year, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine reported: “If clones survive the first few days after birth, they become as strong and healthy as any other young animals. When they’re young adults, they’re completely indistinguishable by appearance and blood measurements from conventional animals of the same age.”
A genetic copy
It is not surprising to many scientists that clones are the same as their conventional counterparts. By its very definition, cloning creates a copy of an animal that already exists.
Are they exactly the same, though? Or do cloned animal differ in some subtle but significant way?
The FDA collected studies by the National Academy of Sciences and other bodies to answer the questions. As early as 2002, that agency and many scientific groups were saying they could not tell any difference between food from clones and from ordinary barnyard animals. Still, there were more studies to ensure that there weren’t some hard-to-find effects from the reprogramming of cells during the cloning process.
In December 2006, the FDA tentatively ruled that there is no difference in milk and meat from cloned cattle, goats and swine. It signaled that cloning would be approved some time in 2007 to take its place among other agricultural breeding technologies such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.
As 2007 ended, a flurry of news reports said the FDA’s final ruling was imminent. Now, cloning industry insiders say they expect it any day. An FDA spokesman declined to comment Friday beyond referring to the 2006 draft ruling.
Once the final ruling comes, don’t expect a flood of food from clones to hit your supermarket.
$100 milk shakes
Large dairy and meat processors have held back from cloning, leaving the controversial research and development to a few small companies. Much of the pioneering work was in Wisconsin, but the companies that survived the long, expensive process are Trans Ova in Iowa, ViaGen Inc. in Austin, Texas, and Cyagra in Elizabethtown, Penn. If their tracking system works as promised, it remains to be seen whether the food industry will use it to screen out cloned animals.
Further, the $15,000 to $20,000 cost of creating a clone is out of the reach of most farmers who supply the food chain. That compares to about $2,000 for a good dairy cow who came into the world the conventional way. Think $100 milk shakes.
The rare customers who lay down that much money to buy a clone from Trans Ova are not particularly interested in producing milk and meat, said Faber, the company’s president.
“A majority of the animals would live out their lives and never enter into the food chain,” Faber said.
These buyers typically are livestock breeders who pay as much as $1 million for a prize bull. Before cloning was available, it took four or five years after a bull was born to prove whether it truly was a genetically superior animal, capable of endowing its daughters with disease resistance, generous milk output and other prized qualities. After that, the bull could produce semen another three to five years. Then it was finished.
Of course the bull could produce offspring through old-fashioned barnyard sex — or, far more likely, through artificial insemination. But breeding involves a spin of the genetic roulette wheel. The result could be another superior animal. Or it could be a dud.
Cloning offers a chance to leverage an investment by making genetic copies of the animal.
Still, even the rare and expensive cloned animals eventually age and die. Thousands of them created in recent years are headed toward that reality, and their owners “would like to capture the salvage value,” Faber said.
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.