Ever since the first experimental clone was born—Dolly, the sheep born in February 1997, cloned by scientists at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland—the public has been divided in opinion on whether or not livestock should be produced in this manner. Heated controversy over cloning put it in the media spotlight early on, since some people questioned the ethics of the procedure and some were concerned about safety issues with food produced from cloned animals.
By now there have been hundreds of cattle cloned, and a growing number of horses, goats, sheep and other animals, since the process has been commercially available for a number of years. As of October 2007, an FDA census listed 570 cattle clones, with many more “on the way”. A growing number of livestock producers (and horse owners) are recognizing cloning as a way to enhance reproductive technology and reproduce their very best genetics. The beauty of it is the ability to make countless new models of a superior animal, or of one that cannot reproduce. For instance, you could clone your best steers, after finding out which ones had the best rate of gain, carcass traits, etc. and use the clones as bulls to sire many, many more exceptional animals.
A clone is a genetically identical animal produced from the body cell of the donor animal; it is a “twin” that is simply born later in time. Tissue samples, such as skin, can be taken from the donor and sent to a lab that does cloning. The cells are grown in culture to produce tissue that can be used immediately for cloning or frozen for future use. Those cells can be thawed at a later time to make the cloned embryos. This is very similar to storing frozen semen or eggs; once the animal is “gene banked” these cells can be kept forever, as long as they stay frozen.
Cloning is simply another reproductive technology but there's a lot of controversy surrounding this new step. As stated by George Owen of ViaGen (one of the companies that does cloning commercially), some people confuse it with gene modification—tampering with the animal's genetic makeup. The buzzword “Frankenfood” is used by groups opposed to cloning; they fear this is a case of science gone wild in creating genetically unnatural, abnormal plants and animals for food.
Owen says this fear is unfounded and stems from misunderstanding. “Nothing is modified; it's just another copy of the same animal. There's a big argument right now about labeling milk and meat from cloned animals, but how are we going to do that when we can't tell the difference? Are you going to label the meat and milk produced from AI created animals or those from embryo transfer?” he asks. “But the public also needs to understand that there won't be very many clones in the food supply. No producer will spend $15,000 to raise an animal for meat! The purpose of cloning is to get offspring from the clone,” explains Owen.
FDA Stance On Cloning -- Because of the controversy and public fear about human safety, FDA in 1999 asked livestock producers to voluntarily withhold meat and milk produced by clones from the human food supply, even though cloning and sale of clones has always been legal. In 2001 the FDA asked the National Academy of Science (NAS) to evaluate cloning and present a report. In 2002 the first NAS report was published and reviewed by FDA's Veterinary Medical Advisory Committee. That committee advised FDA to review more studies.
The FDA spent more than six years doing an extensive review of scientific literature regarding cloning, and evaluating public comment, and on January 15, 2008 released their final risk assessment on the safety of clones and their offspring for use as food. The report concluded that meat and milk from cloned animals is no different than food derived from other livestock. There is no longer a voluntary moratorium on sale of meat and milk from cloned animals since they pose no health or safety risk.
FDA officials are confident that resistance to cloning will diminish as the public becomes more educated about it and more comfortable with the idea. Part of the public reaction is due to distrust of new technology. A look at history shows that when pasteurization of milk was introduced in the mid 1880's it was greeted with skepticism and fear. The artificial insemination of livestock (which was historically first used in Arabian horses in the 14th century by Arab Sheiks, but not until the 1920's by the U.S. livestock industry) was viewed by many people as a horrific divergence from nature. Now AI is commonplace, as is the use of embryo transfer and other enhanced reproductive techniques. FDA officials, scientists and producers who are already benefiting from the use of cloning feel that in future most of the public will also accept this technology.
The NAS report to FDA pointed out that consumers will actually get better food as a result of cloning, since there will be more animals available as seedstock that have “increased genetic merit for increased food production, disease resistance and reproductive efficiency.” Cloning allows stockmen to accelerate the reproduction of their best animals, to produce better quality food that's healthy and safe. Cloning can be an effective tool to amplify the genotypes that have been proven to be resistant to certain diseases, for instance, such as E. coli and mastitis.
In spite of this assurance, there are still some people who say they would prefer to not consume food from clones. Several groups and organizations have taken a stance against it. For instance, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) have both been very vocal on this issue. The CFS is opposed to any form of reproductive technology, including AI, embryo transfer, in vitro fertilization, etc. The CFA's biggest argument revolves around the moral and ethical implications of cloning.
The Ethical/Natural Argument -- Candace Dobson of ViaGen says that the fears about cloning and the argument that cloning is totally unnatural are unfounded because this phenomenon does occur in nature. She points out that Komodo dragons (large lizards found in Indonesia and also in many zoos around the world) can reproduce this way. The female lizard can create fertile embryos (in essence, genetic clones of herself) without a male. This kind of birth is called parthenogenesis (from the Greek words parthen, meaning virgin, and genesis, meaning beginning). This has been seen in several other species including certain fish and sharks.
As stated in an article in the New York Times (published February 24, 2008) by Neil Shubin (associate dean at the University of Chicago, and author of “Your Inner Fish; A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body), these primitive animals can use cloning as one way for their species to survive. Biological cloning is therefore an ancient ability rather than a recent invention of scientists. Shubin states that in nature there is great diversity in the ways some animals reproduce, which allows their species to survive during difficult times or low population numbers. Some creatures born male can actually switch sexes and become females, to carry on their species. Some reptiles do not determine their sex genetically, but rather by different incubation temperatures. In nature, there is no uniform way that all animals start development and grow.
As he points out in his article, humans forget this fact when we turn to nature to guide our choices regarding difficult questions such as the morality of cloning. Without variations and the ability to be flexible, species would disappear if they could not meet challenges such as changing environments and climates. In our debates over ethical issues, Shubin says that we need to keep in mind that morality is a concept limited to our human species. The natural world is not bound by our “human” ideas and our drive to find black and white categories. Instead, it is a “fuzzy” place of great diversity. Therefore, calling cloning “unnatural” is not a valid argument.
The Food Labeling Debate -- Since there are some consumers who prefer to not buy food products from cloned animals, one question commonly asked of FDA is whether there will be labels on meat and milk to indicate that it came from clones or their offspring. In answer to those questions, the FDA has stated that food from clones does not need a label because there are no health, safety or nutritional concerns. Food from cloned animals does not require a label because it does not meet the legal, regulatory criteria necessary for warning labels (a health related characteristic like toxicity, allergenicity or change in composition).
If labels are to be given, they would be applied only to non-cloned food products, if some companies want to assure their customers that they are not eating clones. These labels would be based on statements from the producers—that the animals supplied were not clones. For instance, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has decided that organic food cannot be derived from cloned animals, even though this decision is not based on the scientific criteria earlier put forth by NOSB regarding what can or cannot constitute organic food. But because of this decision regarding clones, the food industry has cooperated by discussing ways to develop a supply chain management system to track clones—so that statements/labels regarding food (as being from non-cloned animals) would be verifiable.
The cloning companies themselves have already set in motion a tracking program, called the Supply Chain Management Program, that will allow food companies to identify clones when they enter the food chain. This will enable any company that wants a processed-based label claim of “no clone” to be accurate in their labeling. As stated by Mark Walton, president of ViaGen (one of the leading genetic companies that offers commercial cloning services), “Cloning companies will continue to work out an orderly marketing transition with the food industry and relevant government agencies as we move toward commercialization.”
He points out that the main purpose of clones is to be used for breeding, not for consumption. The only way a cloned animal would become meat, for instance, is when it becomes old and unable to reproduce, like any other cull breeding animal. “The number of cloned animals in the barnyard is miniscule compared with the size of the total livestock population. And because of our supply chain management system that allows tracking of cloned livestock, consumers are unlikely to ever eat these animals,” says Walton.
The tracking system was developed through extensive discussions this past year, with representatives from the beef, dairy and pork industries, along with producers, processors, grocers and food service providers. Together they came up with a system that works through use of a national registry for clones, with affidavits and incentives. In this system, cloning companies will give each cloned animal a unique ID, to be entered into the registry. Any livestock auction market or meat packer/processor can query the registry and verify whether any animal in question is a clone or not. This system should satisfy the processors and consumers who at this point want to make sure they are not selling or eating a clone. As time goes on, however, and the public becomes less skeptical about this new technique, there will probably be about as much concern over eating food from clones or their offspring as there is at present with eating food from animals produced by artificial insemination.
George Owen of ViaGen says that the people who want “natural” food should actually be in favor of cloning because it's a way to produce superior animals and perpetuate the exceptional individuals that are more resistant to disease. “If we can clone a high producing milk cow or a fast growing beef animal that does it naturally (without the hormones and antibiotics that people don't want in their food), wouldn't this be an improvement?” he asks. This can be a benefit from cloning, to extend our best genetics for efficient natural meat and milk—being able to make more copies of the most superior animals so that we can raise more offspring from them, offspring that might inherit their superior traits.
“After you've traced a steer through all the steps of the feeding process and find he's in the top 5 percent for all desired traits and has an exceptional carcass, we can now take tissue from that steer and use it for cloning,” says Owen. Breeders could use those cloned bulls to create more uniformity in the end product, with more profitable feed efficiency as well as improved health and carcass traits. “I'd think the people who want natural beef would be very excited about this possibility,” he says.