Cloned meat is safe – and the peanut gallery explodes

The following rationales are valid for not wanting to eat meat from cloned animals: eating cloned meat makes you go “ewwww”; you think cloning is “playing God”; you find cloning for food an unethical use of the technology; you think cloned meat should be labeled; you think genetic engineering of food is wrong; you’re a vegetarian; you consider the technology is unethical from an animal welfare standpoint.

The following is not: “the meat isn’t safe.”

When I first heard about the FDA ruling, I was not at all surprised. After all, clones are nearly genetically identical to their “parent,” and so their tissues would naturally be identical to their parent’s as well. So long as the parent was edible, the clone would be too. This is, after all, the very definition of a clone: “an individual grown from a single somatic cell or cell nucleus and genetically identical to it”. And it takes no more than a middle school science background and a little logic to understand that if the genes for a cow produced edible meat in one animal, those exact same genes in a cloned cow would also produce edible meat.

If the FDA had found that cloned meat wasn’t safe, I would have raised an eyebrow and wondered if they’d be bought off by some animal rights outfit.

But in the few days since the FDA announcement, the vast majority of the criticism I’ve seen leveled at the FDA is based on how the meat can’t possibly be safe for human consumption. It’s the same meat – so long as the genes are identical to the parent, there is no difference in the enzymes created by the genes, the proteins created by the genes, the cellular membranes and organelles created by the genes – none.

The only explanation that fits for this outcry is something that we’ve bemoaned here at S&R before: the ignorance of the public and of journalists regarding science, partly as a result of rampantly anti-science movements in education and in our government.

I would understand the safety concerns of cloning critics if we were talking about a true genetically modified organism (GMO) here, but we’re not. The clone is simply a copy, with no more errors in than likely occurs in nature anyway. It’s not like making a cat that glows in the dark, beef that tastes like salmon, or inserting a trichinosis-resistant fungus gene to pig chromosomes – every one of those examples would give me pause about the safety of the meat (OK – not the cat). But not an actual clone, and it’s safety of the actual clone that was verified by the FDA.

If you want to lobby Congress to change the rules and require labeling of cloned meat, go for it. I for one will welcome your efforts, and might even join in. But please, try to avoid using the scientifically invalid safety concern as your rationale.

Other links:
CBS News
Center for Food Safety
European Food Safety Authority
The Economist
National Farmers Union
Farm Sanctuary

Categories: Science/Technology

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19 replies »

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  2. Well, it’s probably safe. They think. They don’t really know. And the FDA is almost entirely corrupted by Big Ag, such that it’d be hard to trust the process. I also wouldn’t trust that they wouldn’t try genetically modifying them, as long as they were screwing around anyway.

    There was a point in time when I thought it’d be the coolest thing ever to be able to grow meat in vats. But I rather question the wisdom of that absent testing. Consider that the meat of range raised animals is not only lower in fat than feedlot cattle, but that it contains lower percentages of harmful fats. The cumulative effects of that, even a pretty steady diet, might take decades to show up.

    But my main concern with it is more structural. Consider that agribusiness thrives on monoculture and seeks to perpetuate it wherever possible. Monoculture is inimical to healthy living systems and the durability of populations. Already, many heirloom vegetable crops and farm animal varieties have gone extinct. This poses problems not only in terms of higher requirements for inputs (crops and animals not locally adapted require more care, etc.) but in terms of disease resistance.

    Consider that we’re probably going to see the end of the banana-as-we-know-it in our lifetimes. This is going to happen because all the bananas grown commercially are clones of the same banana plant, itself a replacement for a previous clone, and are slowly succumbing to the global spread of a disease they have no resistance to. We’re lucky that there’s a wide selection of cultivar varieties from which to breed new bananas, mostly maintained in developing nations. They’re plants, granted, but the principles apply across the natural world. Large stands of similar to identical organisms are biological sitting ducks, though they are very handy for factory farm management.

    Cattle, to take one example, are grown in appalling conditions. They can live for a couple decades or more when well cared for, but would die after a little more than three years, if they weren’t sent early to slaugter, of ulcerated stomachs and nasty, opportunistic diseases under the conditions in which they’re now commonly raised. Dairy cows, a little longer. They must be fed a constant stream of antibiotics just to keep them from keeling over any earlier, and account for 70% of this country’s antibiotic use.

    And that, that is what we have with a population of animals with some moderate genetic diversity. You get a pack of clones in those conditions, it only takes one virus to come along and bam, there goes a third of the North American beef supply. It’s an epidemiology problem.

    The complaints about GMO plants are similar, as illustrated by the banana example, but also come up in response to other problems. For example, the majority of the GMO breeds being grown are grasses. Grasses are wind-pollinated and that pollen can travel for miles, as well as being moderately promiscuous between varieties at times. Even corn is a grass. Which is why there’s such alarm about GMOs getting into Mexico, where corn is originally from and where the wild relatives still grow free. The contamination or potential loss of the wild varieties could limit the ability of future plant breeders to adequately respond to some major, possible problem with the existing corn stock.

    Playing with this stuff and letting it into the wild requires tremendous amounts of faith that nothing will go wrong. Yet the way our industrial food system works, if something does go wrong, it will be broadcast far and wide, recalled late if at all, and there may be no coming back from it if carried to the logical conclusions.

    These are dangerous issues and the agribusiness industry has shown no evidence that it’s motivated by concern for consumers, nor any sort of precautionary principle.

  3. Natasha:

    I think maybe you missed Brian’s point. If you want to object to cloning, monoculture, or any other practice of agribusiness, then by all means do so. BUT, do so on sound grounds. Objecting to cloning because they think the meat isn’t safe (because of the cloning) just makes people look stupid. Stupid is generally an unconvincing trait.

    As for cattle being raised in appalling conditions, I’m just scratching my head on that one. Maybe some are. I’m not a great expert on agribusiness across the entire nation. I am, however, from an agricultural area and regularly visit that area and many of the farms there. What I see are cattle out in the fields munching grass pretty much like they always did. Dairies are pretty much the same way, except there’s more automation in milk collection and processing than there used to be. Cows got diseases when I was a kid. They still do.

    Now, VEAL, on the other hand …

  4. J.S. Obrien,

    What are the benefits to mankind for cloning and eating cloned meat? Are there any?

    Also, I think you missed Natasha’s point. It depends upon what your definition of “safe” is. If you insist that safe means, “won’t keel over dead,’ then yes I agree with your point. Otherwise, in a global, historical view the outcome is not predictable for the long term survivability of our food supply.

    The argument is about the safety of eating cloned meat vs. the long term safety of the food supply for producing cloned meat. It’s clear from Natasha’s well thought out point that the long term safety of the food supply is in jeopardy, -needlessly.

    Again, what are the benefits to mankind for cloning and eating cloned meat? Are there any? If you tell me that increases the profits of big agro-business, well, that’s just not good enough.

  5. Natasha – biologically I literally cannot imagine that any cloned animal that lives long enough and is of sufficient quality to be slaughtered would be biologially unsafe to eat, or that its offspring would be. However, this statement, and my entire post, only applies to actual clones and most definitely not to a genetically engineered farm animal that just happened to be produced by the same method that can also produce cloned animals. One is a clone, the other is a genetically modified organism. And while I don’t inherently have a problem with GMOs either, I feel that GMOs have an actual safety threshold to exceed while clones pretty much don’t.

    That said, though, I agree that structural concerns over monoculture agriculture are certainly of concern in this regard, and that’s a perfectly valid reason to oppose cloned animals for meat purposes.

    Ramone – IMO, there are no benefits for eating cloned meat, but that doesn’t mean it’s biologically unsafe to consume. The FDA’s ruling was that you wouldn’t “keel over dead,” as you put it, not that clone meat was a good business decision or made sense for the long-term viability of beef cattle. Both of those definitions of “safe” are outside the FDA’s purview but should absolutely be part of the USDA review.

    You’re asking the FDA to do something that it was never given the authority to do, which is regulate agriculture as a business, rather than rule on the biological safety of food and drugs. Now, if the USDA doesn’t take the business concerns into account in their review, THEN you’ll have something to complain about.

  6. Natasha, well said about the business of agriculture…though perhaps off the point of the article somewhat…still it does need to be said.

    J.S. Obrien, you are quite lucky to still see livestock raising the way it was meant to be. And realistically, there is a growing segment of farmers doing that.

    The post is true, there is nothing inherently unsafe about eating cloned meat. Many of the vegetables we eat are from cloned plants. All of the apples we eat are from cloned trees because apple tree genetics are random. Macintosh seeds will not produce Macintosh trees.

    The problem i see, and i’m extrapolating from my horticultural experience here, is that cloned cattle may be unsafe for their own health. A herd of cattle that is genetically identical can easily fall prey to a single problem; whereas, in a diverse herd, some will survive. We need to keep in mind that the plants and animals we eat have evolved with us; much of their evolutionary success is because they have provided a use. Cloning will stop the march of evolution on the animal side, but it will not stop the march of evolution on the parasite, bacteria, virus side.

    The other issue, again extrapolated, is that while clones do well there does come a tipping point. You can take a clone and everything is identical, but once you start taking clones of clones…well, things get a little strange.

    I think that there is a push to clone livestock to make it more economically efficient to produce meat, but i also think that our current system of producing meat is (aside from examples like J.S. O’brien provided) completely out of whack to begin with. And rather than trying to eek more profit from an unsustainable system, we would be better served by adjusting the system.

  7. Excellent points, jackpine and Natasha. (Disclosure: I’m communications director at Farm Sanctuary)

    I think it’s important to note that the U.S. Senate voted to keep the FDA from issuing its final risk assessment until further studies had been conducted. The FDA was negligent in issuing its judgment before other factors and concerns about cloning were thoroughly vetted.

    Given the FDA’s purview, the lens with which cloning was examined related solely to public health issues. And I agree with Brian on one important point he made – cloning is, by and large, not a public health issue. Other issues concerning animal welfare, economics, sustainability and ethics all hold importance when addressing the question to clone or not to clone. So the outrage from many folks in the peanut gallery, myself included, resides in the fact that one government department holding only one piece of the pie would make a statement to greenlight a technology that has not been thoroughly discussed in any holistic way.

    I also want to respond to another point that Brian made in his article: “The clone is simply a copy, with no more errors in than likely occurs in nature anyway.”

    This isn’t entirely true. more than 95 percent of cloning attempts fail, resulting in miscarriages or diseased and deformed animals who die prematurely. According to the FDA’s own risk assessment, more than 50 percent of all cattle clones exhibit Large Offspring Syndrome (LOS), characterized by excessively large growth and abnormalities that create “respiratory, cardiac, hepatic, renal, umbilical, and immunologic problems.” A 2007 study found that 42 percent of cloned calves died between birth and 150 days, despite receiving extensive veterinary care. Similar studies on other farm animal species also point to a wide range of health problems, a high incidence of disease, and high death rates for cloned animals. Contrary to the FDA’s claims, the data show that the situation is not improving with time. If only 5 percent of natural, non-cloned births were viable and “successful,” we would have a serious problem on our hands. How many animals have to die to prove that we know how to copy them?

    Finally, I want to add to some of Natasha’s valid concerns related to monoculture — there is a resurgence in raising animals “humanely” on small farms and buying locally and all of those things deemed sustainable, but the sad fact is that factory farms are growing. JS O’Brien – the vast majority of cattle still graze on land for about the first 12-14 months of their lives, but most are sent to feedlots to fatten up on nutritionally incomplete, but cheap and effective for fattening, corn based feed, where they are kept in (literally) crappy conditions for another 4-6 months before heading to the slaughterhouse. All in all, the do fare better welfare-wise than chickens, turkeys, and pigs, but that’s for another time.

    The truth is that factory farms are growing by leaps and bounds to meet the needs of a growing export market and the continued demand for cheap meat. Farm Sanctuary has been battling factory farms for 22 years now, and we’re not just up against large producers. We’re up against the chemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry and now, enter the genetics industry. This industry is forging a vertical market in agriculture, but a clone runs about 15K. That means only the largest producers can afford the technology, thus giving them an unfair advantage over smaller producers. That means, factory farms win again, and we all know their track record when it comes to animal welfare conditions.

    Thanks for your time in reading, and your pixel space.

  8. Ramone, jackpine, and tricia:

    Let me try, once again, to separate the issues. If monoculture is a problem, then I’d like to learn about it. I see no particular benefit in eating cloned meat.

    But that’s NOT the issue. The issue is whether cloned meat is safe to eat. Since it’s genetically identical (or nearly so) to the original cow, it should be every bit as safe to eat as the original cow. Insisting that cloned meat is not safe to eat simply weakens all other arguments about monoculture, animal cruelty, or what have you. It makes those who object look stupid, because the objection to the MEAT ITSELF has no support. If the meat sybolizes underlying issues of great importance, attacking the safety of the MEAT ITSELF is counterproductive.

    This reminds me of the people who were afraid of irradiated food because they thought they’d turn into the human fly.

    Attack the important issues. I’ll support anyone who does that. But I cannot support those who pretend that something that they believe is unwise is also unsafe.

  9. Tricia – Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Most of the organizations like Farm Sanctuary do seem to be aware of the difference between the public health arena where the FDA ruled and the structural and agricultural arenas where the USDA et al have yet to rule on this issue. My complaint is largely not directed at Farm Sanctuary, the National Farmers Union, the AAVS, etc. You folks understand your science and how the government divvies up responsibility among different agencies. That’s why you’re not linked as a bad example but rather tacked on as informational sites.

    That said, I do wish you hadn’t criticized the FDA for releasing their conclusions as soon as they’d been vetted. The FDA would have faced criticism regardless of whether they’d waited or not for the other federal departments to be ready. I don’t know what their release timing tradeoff analysis looked like, but their early release actually turned out to serve a valuable public interest – because the FDA released their conclusions early, organizations such as yourselves have more time to lobby Congress and to get your message out to the public about the non-public health concerns that cloning raises. This means that you actually have a better chance of influencing public policy because of the FDA’s “error” than you might have had if the FDA, USDA, et al had synchronized the release of their reports.

  10. JS O’Brien,

    I agreed with the post about cloned meat being safe to eat. I can see no reason why it wouldn’t be. My concerns came from a different angle. I’m still trying to find in my original post where i raised any concern about the safety of eating cloned meat. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

    “The post is true, there is nothing inherently unsafe about eating cloned meat.” That’s what i said. Do i still look stupid? Does that sound hysterical?

    I did discuss some of the pitfalls of cloning, and i know something (though not in regards to animals) of this because i’ve personally cloned 10’s of thousands of plants. But those pitfalls have nothing to do with consumption, they are about production and population health. These may, or may not, be issues related to cloned livestock. I put them out there as things to consider in fleshing out the bigger picture.

  11. jackpine,

    My apologies. I was simply trying to respond to all the posts at once, and got sloppy.

    Thanks for setting me straight, but I think you’ll find that I’m a pretty reasonable guy. No need to do much more than point out my errors.


  12. If you cloned Cattle like carrots, your point would be entirely well taken, but while that is the natural way of things with a great number of plants and critters, from bananas to starfish, the situation is very different for mammals, and especially large mammals.

    Were this not true we would have been dining on critter clone, for a hundred years if not thousands, as is the case with potatoes, bananas, sugar cane, and such crops. Monoculture is a problem, but only in a few cases like corn, ecocritical. We are already on our second variety of banana, but seeded bananas are inedible, and easily and naturally mess up their genetics to the point of sterility, but the result will still make a large stand of bananas of variable quality as the root will make many new plants.(I have three in my yard).

    Cloning is also different from parthenogenesis, and twinning, even though the results seem the same at first glance. The first two do occur naturally, if rarely, and the dreadful results of cloning are not seen.

    Though not an expert in that field, it looks obvious that the cases that fail should be better understood beyond the experts with a financial stake in the process. There was a time when there were Government researchers who’s job was to look out for the public good but no more. So the details of the mechanism of failure is unknown outside the industry.

    99.9% of those failure mechanisms, would have few implications beyond the fate of the unfortunate clone, but there are few caveats I would be concerned about.

    The first are prions and prion like mechanisms that are age related, twins all have the same clock, that the skin cell (or whatever) is much older. What that clock is and where it is in the cell I don’t know but twins are “young” and clones are “old” so there is some clock that gets reset even in parthenogenesis. Secondly Cloning clones puts all those issues on steroids, and thirdly speaking of steroids, what is done to solve the problem may well be problematic in itself.

    All these arguments are arguments from ignorance, but that is the biggest problem, if there were transparency and the sort of open inquiry of a sane society, there would be less ignorance and more trust where common understanding is lost.

    Unfortunately the past is a list of failures of trustworthiness, where experts saw disaster imminent but chose to make a few more bucks before they were found out and then running with the money and not being accountable. Fix this issue and all the other political issues will go away, or at least be way more rational.

  13. JS O’Brien,

    It’s cool. I hope i didn’t sound overly defensive. I understand what you were getting at and i agree with you wholeheartedly. The kind of arguments you were decrying get me all kinds of pissed off too, and that’s probably why i said something…i.e. nobody likes to be lumped in with something they don’t like.

    It is hard to talk about subjects like this because people get really worked up, especially as agricultural issues have become entwined (rightfully) with environmental issues. Hell, i read something Alec Baldwin wrote and he tried to turn the safety of cloning into an argument for vegetarianism, forgot all about cloning, and went off about eating meat being equal to destroying the planet.

    I think most of the regular people around here are reasonable people, that’s why its on my list. And when i’m here i try not to open my mouth if i’m feeling unreasonable.

  14. Unfortunately, Brian, the press conference was held jointly by the FDA and USDA. They are in concert on this issue. That said, the USDA did ask for a voluntary moratorium, but that’s not going to stop the engine from running. It’s about as effective as voluntary BSE testing. This was, unfortunately, another example of government agencies thumbing their collective nose at Congress. Luckily, Barbara Mikulski is pushing on with her legislation to put a stop to this nonsense. The legislative process would have brought the issue to light and allowed for a more constructive debate addressing all concerns, ethical, economical, etc. without a premature statement by the FDA. Instead, we end up with a skewed public debate largely focused on public health, because that was the FDA’s purview.