BoingBoing TV’s entertaining visit to Machine Project’s tissue-culturing workshop in L.A. (embedded above; let it load for a minute or two before playing) reminded me that the FDA had originally said it would announce this month whether it had determined cloned meat and dairy were safe for the general food supply. In October Wired magazine ran a terrific in-depth piece on this topic, "Cloned Beef (and Pork and Milk): It’s What’s for Dinner" which I just realized got omitted somehow from the Digest. In it, writer Ben Paynter says that the FDA has since backed off this timeline, perhaps because it still hasn’t finished wading through the 145,000 public comments it received in response to the announcement. I have a call in to the FDA to find out if the agency has an estimated date for when it will make the announcement.
In the Wired story, Paynter meets several ranchers who have experimented with cloning prize animals as "cash cows" to breed other champion descendants, including a hog farmer who was disturbed when all of his first four cloned piglets experienced one of the frequent side effects of animals created through somatic-cell nuclear transfer — it’s called "sudden death syndrome," which is scientist-speak for "we don’t know WTF happened." He also reports that cloned meat and dairy are most definitely already in the food chain, despite lack of FDA approval.
The article’s emphasis on taste — how one can’t tell the difference between cloned and regular meat — and the accompanying Wired Science video on the lab technology behind the process are both a little disappointingly unrigorous. In the video, Mark Westhusin at Texas A&M’s Reproductive Sciences Lab shrugs that if the cloned animals look and behave like animals, and current technology is unable to detect any physical difference in their meat, then it must be safe. But until someone can provide a scientific explanation of why, if there’s "no difference," only 68% of cloned animals survive, many of them with birth defects, then the FDA should consider the precautionary principle, the simple form of which translates to "better safe than sorry."
After all, there is no pressing need for cloned meat and dairy; its approval will benefit only a few, while putting the entire population at risk. If even a company like Smithfield Foods, which has proved it will do almost anything to make a few more cents, says the technology requires further investigation, then what’s the rush? Before we unleash the next Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, let’s conduct some long-term studies of higher mammals consuming cloned meat. We just might discover, as we did with prions, that there’s more to meat than fat and muscle.