Cloning CEO says FDA hearing about labeling, not technology

fda_cloning.jpgTime is running out to tell the FDA what you think of its assessment that meat and dairy from cloned animals is safe for the food supply. The comment period closes April 2.

Yawn! you say. Enough already with the pleas to take action on cloning! I eat only organic — who cares what funky stuff mainstream America eats?

Well, friends don't let friends eat unsafe food. And I really believe this has significant potential to be unsafe. Once it's out there, ain't gonna be no stuffing that "genie" back in the bottle. (Case in point: genetically modified grains.) It looks like cloning headed straight into our food system. Mark Walton, president of the livestock cloning and genetics company Viagen, told attendees at the Animal Care & Handling Conference attendees just recently that

he is encouraged because as of March 28, more than 4,000 comments had been received by the FDA, but most referenced only the topic of labeling of products derived from cloned animals. Compared to many other hot-button issues, Dr. Walton said 4,000 comments during this 90-day comment period — which expires April 3 — is relatively low, indicating minimal resistance to the technology itself. [emphasis added. His comments were reported in Meat & Poultry News; registration required]

walton.jpg What am I, some Luddite scared of technology who pines for the "Little House on the Prairie" period?On the contrary. Friends will attest that I am one of the technologically geekiest girls, I mean women, around — a lover of all forms of chip-driven technology. But I don't want to eat cloned animals, at least until I'm convinced that they're safe, and we're nowhere near that point. And I also don't think potentially unsafe food, with or without a label, should be foisted on the millions of unsuspecting consumers who happen not to be following these developments. It's a giant, uncontrolled experiment on public health, and the only likely beneficiaries are the cloning companies and gigantic meat producers who want to clone their perfect steak producers.

If you need further persuasion that the technology is not ready for prime-rib time, label or no label, read the Center for Food Safety's detailed critique (PDF) of the FDA's risk assessment. (Or at least read the summary.) Only 10 years old, cloning technology is still so flawed that only 68% of clones survive. The FDA says that's no worry, as only the survivors will be edible, but I don't find that comforting in the face of the prevalence of inexplicable illnesses or deaths in adult clones — which are so prevalent that one scientist has termed it “adult clone sudden death syndrome."

You've got until April 2 to add your two cents that the technology needs to be more mature, and more comprehensive studies need to be done on the long-term effects of eating it, before the FDA approves it. C'mon, do it — it's just a few sentences and a few clicks of the mouse>

Credit: Images are from the Daily Show's recent segment on cloning.

3 Responsesto “Cloning CEO says FDA hearing about labeling, not technology”

  1. The problem with cloning is that the genome gets "reprogrammed" in normally fertilized embryos. We haven't yet figured out how to get the genome from an adult cell to reprogram. That's why so many of the clones have developmental problems. The genes aren't switching on and off in exactly the right order or with the right timing.

    So, in the clone, there might be a few more or less RNA transcripts of various genes, or slightly different concentrations of proteins. The genes and resulting proteins are EXACTLY the same as what exists in a non-cloned individual. The difference is quantity not quality.

    The cost of producing a cloned animal is so high - how can anyone think that the companies are going to spend that much money to let the animal end up at McDonald's?

    Clones might be used for breeding - but keep in mind that cattle rarely have sex, it's all artificial insemination and egg transfer. This is how ranchers breed cattle with desired traits, such as leaner muscle. These traits are very complex, and many involve killing the animal. They are in effect guessing about the outcome of a cross.

    For example, if a steer with perfectly marbled meat comes through the slaughterhouse, he can't exactly breed anymore. But, a tissue sample can be quickly frozen and the DNA used to make a clone, leading to more animals with that perfect marbling.

    The most likely animal to be cloned is a prized bull that is past his prime, so that his clone will be able produce more sperm for AI. The offspring of the clone will have "reprogrammed" genomes, so will have none of the developmental problems.

    Not convinced? Don't eat meat.

    All of the slaughterhouse issues of dangerous and unsanitary conditions are known dangers but people have no problem ignoring that. The practice of "finishing" cattle in feces covered feedlots is far more unnatural than cloning. Just because something was done in a lab doesn't mean that it should be feared.

    Organic, while shunning biotechnology, has no guarantee about the well being of the animals. Consider this: organic practices prohibit the use of antibiotics or medicine, but allow overcrowding of animals (the very conditions that cause spread of disease in the first place). Overuse of antibiotics is a problem, but this method practically guarantees that sick animals won't be given proper treatment.

    Yet people worry about cloning.

  2. DairyQueen says:

    Hi Anastasia: Thanks for your thoughtful, clearly knowledgeable response. But I have to ask -- what's the rush? If, as you say,

    We haven’t yet figured out how to get the genome from an adult cell to reprogram. That’s why so many of the clones have developmental problems. The genes aren’t switching on and off in exactly the right order or with the right timing.

    then why not wait to start eating clones once we've got at least that part worked out? I don't think we have a shortage of delicious meat and dairy in this country, do you?

    I am not reassured by your argument that cloning is too expensive to be widely used, so therefore we just shouldn't worry about it. Once it is approved, the barriers to companies like ViaGen's profitability will disappear, and as they begin to make money from it, the price will come down. There are also no long-term studies of the health of cloned progeny. As I said, it just seems like quite a lot to gamble with in terms of public health when the potential benefits are very small.

    As for your contention that cloning is no worse than how certified organic animals are currently raised in this country, I don't think you can equate the two. We write a lot on this blog about how the organic label may not always connote the ideals that accompanied the original movement to create the label. Around here, we don't "ignore" the dangers of E. coli-laced feedlots, and we don't think much of organic farmers who raise their "free range" chickens crowded into sheds, or who would withhold antibiotics from suffering animals just to avoid having to remove them from the organic program.

    But just because we don't approve of them — and a lot of other unrelated stuff – doesn't mean that we'll just stand by while an incompletely understood, clearly imperfect technology is approved in a manner that will directly affect what our families and children eat. Even if we ourselves intend to avoid it.

    Eating cloned products may indeed turn out to be a risk-free proposition. Or, it might have unforeseen consequences, such as previous practices did that were assumed to be safe, such as feeding ruminant bone meal to ruminants. (Protein is protein, after all.) Are you ready, right now, to bet your life on cloning's safety? Because that's what's "at steak."

  3. From reading this blog, it's easy to see that the authors care about the other details of food production, but most of the people making noise about cloning and genetic engineering do not.

    The FDA is having a little foresight (for once) and evaluated the technology before it becomes widespread. Cloned meat is not for sale, and will not be for a very long time, if at all, due to the expense. As I said, clones will be used for breeding.

    The cost of cloning isn't due to regulation or its newness - it's the actual technology itself. The cost won't go down until we learn how to "reset" an adult genome (not an easy task). Even then, the implantation of embryos, also used in IVF, remains expensive. As I understand it, breeding cattle are kept separate from meat cattle. The herd reproduces with relatively little human assistance once cattle with the desired traits are obtained. Cloning will simply be another method used to obtain superior breeding cattle.

    Even if we learn that cloned animals are somehow different from their parent, calves of clones are just as "normal" as those born of a natural mating. These progeny are the ones that will end up as food.

    Consider the genome - the program that makes an organism - and what the cloning process is. To put it simply, we are moving the chromosomes from an adult cell to an embryo. Aside from the lack of epigenetic changes associated with fertilization, the genome is the same. The only changes in the animals are due to changes in gene expression - but the genes themselves remain exactly the same as the ones found in non-cloned animals. I truly do not understand what the "unknown risks" proposed by those against cloning could be.

    Those against cloning say that there is no research - but a search on PubMed brought up quite a bit. The New Zealand Food Safety Authority was nice enough to put together a list of research (up to 2005) that provides a brief glimpse of just how much work has been done.

    And here's a more recently published study, from January 2007: How healthy are clones and their progeny: 5 years of field experience. They showed that adult clones were healthy and normal. "In conclusion, cloning had no risks qualitatively different from those encountered in animals involved in modern agricultural practices, although the frequency of the risks appeared to be increased in cattle during the early portions of the life cycle of cattle clones." (Those early problems will greatly decrease when we learn how to "reprogram" the genome.)

    As for safety of animals that eat the meat of cloned animals - feeding studies have been conducted and surely more will be conducted. The results show that meat and milk from cloned animals is safe to eat.

    Scientists don't just run around saying things that they made up. We base our reputations on the work that we do. True, there are unethical scientists, but they are certainly not the norm. Journals base their reputations on the quality of the work they publish. There are enough people working on these problems in multiple countries with diverse funding sources that it is highly unlikely that all of them are compromised.

    Personally, I think all meat should be much much more expensive than it is today, and eaten only for special occasions, if at all. The animals should be raised in environments that are natural for their kind. It's really too bad (for the animals, for consumers, and the environment) that more people don't feel this way - but that's no reason to discredit science.

    As for the validity of the idea of feeding animals to herbivores - IMHO, it is highly unlikely that there was a serious inquiry into the safety of the practice before it was started. The meat industry was likely looking for a way to sell slaughterhouse waste. In that case, it truly was "assumed to be safe." In the case of cloning, however, a lot of research and biology backs up the safety of the practice.

    Sorry if the links don't work - I'm not sure if I can do normal html on this site.