Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed its earlier approval for meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs, and goats to enter the U.S. food supply (it provided preliminary approval in December of 2006). After seven years of research, the agency released a report in which they state that it’s “unlikely” there is any difference between the safety of food from clones and their progeny and that of food from animals bred using more traditional methods (you know, the birds and the bees). While it would currently be cost prohibitive to clone animals for food (it costs between $15000 and $20000 to clone a single animal), farmers hope to use cloning to increase the quality of their breeding stock.
The ethics of cloning aside, the announcement has sparked a heated debate in the public. Some argue that this is simply a new technology and that it would be silly to ignore its potential just because it has to do with animals and not, say, mobile phones. Others argue that this “technology” is too new and that the FDA should perform more studies before making a final call – studies similar to those performed on drugs and other medical technologies.
The other big debate is over whether or not food should be labeled as having come from a cloned animal or its progeny. Farmers and advocates of cloning argue that labeling food would essentially kill the market for cloned food before it has a chance to succeed, while opponents argue that any potential safety recalls would be impossible unless cloned foods were labeled and tracked. The FDA’s official stance:
The agency is not requiring labeling or any other additional measures for food from cattle, swine, and goat clones, or their offspring because food derived from these sources is no different from food derived from conventionally bred animals.
Whichever side of the debate you’re on – this development raises some interesting questions.
First, are our regulations and standards up to date? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies organic foods and beverages, for example; and the USDA Certified Organic seal has become increasingly prominent and important to consumers in the past few years. The certification guidelines are:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.
Depending on how you read this – cloned animals themselves may or may not be eligible for an USDA Certified Organic seal. But, it sounds like the offspring of cloned animals that are raised according to organic standards may very well be certifiably organic. While some companies and retailers, such as Whole Foods and Ben & Jerry’s, have vowed to never purchase products from cloned animals or their progeny, others haven’t yet taken a stance, which means consumers may be left in the dark with regard to what, exactly, is on their dinner plates.
Labels will certainly help to mitigate some of the confusion around food, but how much are consumers willing to deal with? Going to the grocery store shouldn’t require a user’s manual. Already we have a slew of labels, official and otherwise, adorning the goods and foods we consume: USDA Certified Organic, Certified Fair Trade, Cradle to Cradle Certified, Dolphin Safe, Hormone-and-Antibiotic Free, Cage-Free… the list goes on, but you get the idea.
Consumer confidence is another major issue at the heart of this debate. From Ben & Jerry’s page on the issue (emphasis ours):
A December 2006 poll by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 64% of U.S. consumers are uncomfortable with animal cloning and 43% believe food from cloned animals is unsafe. A November 2006 poll by the International Food Information Council said that 58% of Americans surveyed would be unlikely to buy meat or dairy products from cloned animals.
Will more people go vegan if/when cloned foods start appearing on store shelves? Not likely, but it’s too early to say how consumers will actually respond. Either way, shaken consumers may cause a decline in domestic sales of meat and dairy, which would be bad news for everyone in the industry, regardless of whether or not they’re participating in the cloning extravaganza.
Furthermore, there’s a host of issues around animal welfare and animal rights – though that gets into the ethics of cloning, and we’re trying to present the issues and stay impartial at this point.
Regardless of how you feel about the issue, we encourage you to learn more by visiting the FDA’s website on cloning.