By Pam Linn

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Clone on the range

We’re told the FDA took seven years to decide meat from cloned cattle, swine and goats is safe to eat. The agency’s 968-page report, based on studies conducted around the world, found meat and dairy products from clones are “biologically indistinguishable” from traditionally bred animals. Essentially that means they look and taste the same.

Consumer advocates are pressing the FDA to make labeling mandatory on the notion that if problems are discovered after cloned food is on the shelves and it’s not labeled, there would be no way to recall it. Good point.

After all, the FDA has been wrong before. Remember they told us that if meat were cooked to the required temperature (that would be not rare) E-coli bacteria would be killed. E-coli turned out to be way more resilient than they thought, sticking to more than our ribs. It also would have made more sense to concentrate efforts on cleaning up slaughterhouses, and packing plants than to force us to eat gray, bone dry steaks.

Opponents say that once again the FDA has favored a handful of biotech companies over the public they’re pledged to protect. Well, maybe.

The agency’s risk assessment said that cloning raises many ethical and economic concerns that are important to the public but that the agency’s task was to focus on the science. Whoa! We’ve just suffered through seven years of government debunking the findings of its own scientists; redacting inconvenient truths from their reports. So, why this apparent reverence for science now?

Well, for one thing, beef producers and scientists both say clones aren’t genetic mutants, but rather identical twins of naturally produced animals. They’re just born at a different time.

In the cloning process, a 32-cell developing embryo is removed from a cow at slaughter. The 32nd cell is teased out of the embryo and the nucleus replaced with DNA from a prize animal. The cell is returned to the embryo and implanted in the uterus of a surrogate cow. A tiny electric shock induces the egg to grow into a copy of the original animal. (I hope I’ve got this right.)

No new genes are introduced or modified, unlike the Asian pigs that had fluorescent genes added to embryos and bore offspring with a gene mutation causing them to glow green in the dark. Is there a market for green pork chops?

The FDA is asking for a voluntary moratorium against introducing meat and milk from clones and their offspring into the food supply. Well, we’ve all seen how well “voluntary” measures work when corporate profits are at stake. In this case, producers agree because the cost of cloning precludes profit on beef products sold for meat.

But the agency is giving breeders the green light to sell semen from clones as early as this spring.

Animal rights activists have yet to weigh in on the controversy but perhaps the time for that would have been when the first cattle clones were born in 1998; cloned pigs in 2000. Or way back in the ’60s when breeders accepted artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization. Supplanting a normal and, we assume, pleasant animal behavior with a surgical procedure surely must have troubled PETA.

There might also have been opposition to the practice of embryo splitting, which turns a single genetically desirable animal into twins.

Back to the future. Producers say semen from a champion bull can cost upward of $800 a pop while a vial of cloned semen would fetch only $20. Since it currently costs close to $20,000 to clone a single cow, $4,000 for a pig, it’s unlikely their offspring will wind up on dinner plates. And experts say only a fraction of the 97 million cattle in the U.S. are candidates for cloning. I assume those would be prize-winning specimens on which breeders have staked their fortunes.

One Montana cattle breeder’s prize bull was retired from stud after an injury rendered him impotent. His owner risked thousands of dollars to keep him alive until cloning was approved. He has now raised several cloned bulls for semen production but they will soon be past prime breeding age. For him, the FDA approval has come none too soon.

At the request of the food industry, biotech firms have pledged a voluntary tracking program using electronic ear tags with individual I.D. data entered into a registry. The client pays a fee equal to twice the market value of the animal, which is returned when it is proven the animal did not go to slaughter. No tracking would be included for offspring of clones on the theory that the progeny of clones aren’t clones.

Without mandatory labeling, opponents fear producers won’t be able to export meat and milk to foreign countries. Given Europe’s disdain for GMOs, we might assume they would refuse to buy meat or milk from cloned animals. Yet the European Food Safety Authority gave preliminary approval to the technology last week. I suppose European beef producers would be allowed to import semen from cloned animals to inseminate their cows. Ah, well. International agreement coalesces around sex after all. Cheers to French President Sarkozy.