Advocacy in action

Harry Snelson Send in the clones

In December 2006, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that food derived from cloned animals or the progeny of cloned animals is “virtually identical” to that derived from “conventionally” reared animals. The agency also stated that such food would not be required to carry any special labeling informing the consumer of its origin. This determination follows many years of review by the regulatory agency and comes in spite of objections from some consumer groups and even some livestock producers and food manufacturers and retailers.

Since Dolly the sheep became the first cloned mammal in 1996, numerous other livestock species, including pigs, have been bred in this manner. The FDA imposed a voluntary ban on the sale of products derived from clones during its extensive review of the scientific literature regarding the safety of such products. As cloning became a reality, it was often grouped together with other biotechnologies and, as a result, was confused with methodologies that encompassed genetic manipulation and modification. Consumers have been poorly informed about the process of cloning and the production advantages and food-quality enhancements this technology provides.

The FDA asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for their concerns regarding human consumption of foods derived from cloned animals and their offspring. The NAS expressed no concerns, but also cited an absence of available research. The FDA then initiated an extensive review of the scientific studies, examining first the animals themselves. The agency established that the health and composition of cloned animals didn’t differ from those of conventionally reared animals. Next, they looked at the research focusing on the composition of food products derived from clones and their offspring. Again, the studies indicate that these products do not differ in any material way.

To those of us involved with livestock production, cloning offers a reproductive technique akin to artificial insemination or selective breeding that allows the producer to optimize favorable production and food-quality aspects of the animals we raise. It does not involve genetic modification or manipulation as many critics would have the consumer believe. It may allow more products (such as milk or prime beef or lean pork) to be produced using fewer animals and at a lower cost. The technique greatly enhances the rate at which we can bring superior genetic traits to the farm and to the table.

Even given all this evidence and the potential advantages, various groups have expressed concerns with cloning, including food-safety issues, animal-welfare concerns, and ethical questions. Food products derived from cloned animals are banned in a number of countries. Manufacturers and retailers are already lining up to create and exploit a new market of “clone-free” products to further confuse consumers. Some livestock producers are also against adoption of this technology for fear of consumer backlash or loss of export markets.

Those of you who have bothered to continue reading to this point are probably wondering what this has to do with advocacy. This issue has all the earmarks of a potentially significant regulatory, legislative, and marketing quagmire similar to Country of Origin Labeling, organic marketing, or horse slaughter. It’s one of those things that is easy for elected officials to find themselves on the wrong side of. “Shouldn’t consumers know where their food is coming from? It’s a food-safety issue isn’t it?” “Aren’t foods raised ˜naturally’ inherently ˜better’ than foods raised conventionally?” “Who in their right mind would be against a law to protect horses?” “Cloning is˜Franken-science,’ isn’t it? There’s too much mystery associated with it, so it must just benefit producers while putting consumers at increased risk.” Proponents of this technology have not done a good job of educating consumers, retailers, and legislators.

Will we soon be consuming a significant amount of food produced from cloned livestock or their offspring? It’s doubtful. There aren’t that many cloned animals out there and eating a clone is expensive. However, the technology is improving, and this action by the FDA clears the way for producers interested in advancing the genetic superiority of their animals to now freely access the conventional markets. In other words, producers can now sell their products without differentiation or additional oversight.

This is where advocacy, or education, comes in. If producers and consumers are going to have the opportunity to reap the benefits of superior genetics realized through increased performance, lower costs, and enhanced food quality, proponents need to ensure that their message is heard and the markets remain open. It will be an interesting issue to watch over the next few years. Will the technology be allowed to advance to the point that producers and consumers can realize the vast potential this technology offers? Or, is it just another New Coke?

--Harry Snelson