On December 28, the Food and Drug Administration issued a draft report stating that "meat and milk from clones of adult cattle, pigs and goats, and their offspring, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals."   In modern-day America, however, the FDA is not allowed to base its decisions concerning public safety simply on the basis of scientific knowledge.  It must listen to the way people feel -- rationally or not -- about its finding.  And so, the FDA explained, 


  • Because the release of the draft risk assessment and proposed risk management plan marks the beginning of our interaction with the public on these issues, we are continuing to ask producers of clones and livestock breeders to voluntarily refrain from introducing food products from these animals into commerce so that we will have the opportunity to consider the public's comments and to issue any final documents as warranted

Not surprisingly, the response was swift and loud from those who distrust all applications of "unnatural" science to the supposed natural world of food production (which is really not natural at all, as I explained in a previous post).   This is what the Center for Food Safety (which lobbies for the organic farming industry) had to say:


FDA’s action flies in the face of widespread scientific concern about the risks of food from clones . . . What's worse, FDA indicates that it will not require labeling on cloned food, so consumers will have no way to avoid these experimental foods. . .cloning scientists warn that even small imbalances in clones could lead to hidden food safety problems in clones' milk or meat. 

If you're confused or frightened by the prospect of "cloned food," it is critical to take a step back and understand the fundamental biological principles of cloning and food safety.  Biologists use the word "clone" to describe an individual organism -- microbe, plant, or animal -- that carries the same total genetic information as another organism.   The word was invented about 100 years ago by botanists and  breeders to describe new plants created from cuttings of existing plants.  


The first take-home point is that clones are not copies (science fictions stories notwithstanding).  Identical twins are clones of each other, but they are different people.  The second point is that an adult animal cannot be "cloned" directly.   Rather, the total DNA from one of its cells is used to create an embryo that must undergo the entire process of development before a cloned animal (equivalent to a later-born identical twin) comes to life.


With this scientific primer, we can delve into the question of whether meat from cloned cows poses any risk to a consumer (above and beyond the risk of eating any meat).  The critical point is that cloning doesn't add anything new! The cloned animal -- by definition -- will not contain any substance that was not present in the progenitor animal.  Environmental factors may cause it to produce more or less of some proteins or metabolites, but the natural variation among normal cows is much much greater.    The cloned cow cannot make a new allergenic substance or a new toxin or a new cancer-causing agent in the absence of a very rare mutation (which can occur with just as much likelihood in any cow).   The cloned animal might become infected with a virus or bacteria, but this is true for all animals, and sick animals are not allowed into the food supply.  If nay-sayers persist in claiming that its more risky to eat cloned animals relative to "natural" animals, they should provide some sort of scientific hypothesis to support this claim -- I know of none.


Anyone with a Ph.D. in biology will understand the scientific principles I've just espoused, which is why I am bewildered by the claim of the Center for Food Safety that, "cloning scientists warn that even small imbalances in clones could lead to hidden food safety problems in clones' milk or meat."  Which cloning scientists?  Why don't they actually name names?  The answer is probably because they have no names of actual scientists involved in animal cloning work.


What is the basis for the hysterical reaction taken by the Center for Food Safety against the safety of cloned animals?  Is it just an emotional reaction against the "unnaturalness" of cloning as compared to sexual reproduction, or is there something else at play.  Well, this past week, the Center's Charles Margulis and Joseph Mendelson crowed about legislation introduced by Senators Leahy (D-VT) and Kohl (D-WI) that would exclude milk or meat from cloned animals or their progeny from being used in any product that was labeled organic.


The strategy of the organic food industry is clear.  Frighten people into thinking that cloned food will harm their health, and then tell them that the only way to avoid this harm is by eating organic.  No wonder the organic food market continues to grow by leaps and bounds.