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Cloned Meat Is The Bomb

February 14, 2008

Cloned meat could soon be for dinner, if you’re not paying attention

Products don’t require labels, facing backlash

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, February 10, 2008

By KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS / The Dallas Morning News

With meat and milk from cloned animals expected to be allowed into the U.S. food supply in a matter of months, and their offspring already permitted, consumers have two choices.

They can ignore the controversy and chow down with abandon, or they can quiz each of their grocery stores, restaurants and dinner hosts about their policy on using food developed with cloning.

That’s because, unless Congress intervenes, regulators have decided that the products require no special labeling.

Last month, after years of debate, the Food and Drug Administration declared that meat and milk from most cloned livestock, and from their conventionally reproduced offspring, are as safe to eat as food from any other animals.

Wary of consumer backlash, some large grocers and restaurant operators say they plan to shun such products – whether from clones or their offspring – and will make sure their suppliers help them keep that vow.

“We’ve already communicated this to our suppliers,” said Gary Huddleston, a spokesman for Cincinnati-based Kroger, the No. 2 grocery chain behind Wal-Mart. “The supplier that wants to do business with Kroger is going to comply.”

Other organizations are less adamant. But few, if any, companies – or consumers – seem to want to embrace cloning.

“It’s too new,” Charlotte Bowers, 65, of Plano said after selecting a top sirloin steak at a Plano Kroger recently. “I’m a wait-and-see type person. I’ll still want to see what happens with people who eat it.”

Cloning advocates, meanwhile, say it’s much ado about nothing. They note that no one is likely to eat cloned cows, only the offspring of cloned cows, or, more likely, offspring of the offspring. Cloning is a tool to help develop higher-quality, more consistent meat, backers say.

“Cloned animals are for breeding, not for eating,” said Dr. Barbara Glenn, managing director of animal biotechnology for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington-based trade group. “It is unlikely that a cloned animal would ever reach the food supply.”

Adding policies

Meat and milk sellers locally and around the nation have been scrambling to develop or step up their policies about cloned animals since the Jan. 15 decision from the FDA. That’s when the agency declared that meat and milk from cloned cattle, swine and goats, and from their non-cloned offspring, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals. The decision did not include sheep.

Since 2001, ranchers and suppliers have been operating under a voluntary moratorium on sending such animals into the food supply, although some consumer groups say products from clones’ offspring probably have already been sold and consumed.

The Department of Agriculture has asked that the moratorium remain in place for clones, but not their offspring, for a few months so it can “transition” any products into the consumer market.

The USDA did not say how many months the transition period would take but said it involves meeting and sharing information with consumers and consumer advocates, data providers, research organizations and representatives of foreign governments where cloning technology already may be in use or under consideration.

Meanwhile, the FDA’s decision means no special “clone” label will be required on products from clones or their offspring – although there is a bill in Congress to overrule the FDA.

Barring labels, consumers will have to take the word of grocers and restaurant operators if they want to avoid any products that were developed with cloning.

Two Dallas-based companies, restaurant operator Brinker International and Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy producer, are among those that have established a “no clones” policy for meat and milk from the cloned animals and their offspring. So have national grocers like Kroger and Whole Foods Markets, based in Austin.

Whole Foods, the nation’s largest certified organic grocer, said it is “working with our supplier community to develop chain-of-custody records that trace product breeding stock through multiple generations … to ensure that goal is met,” the company said.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, and Tyson Foods, the biggest beef processor, both based in Arkansas, said they have no plans to buy products from cloned livestock.

But when asked about the offspring of clones, Tyson said it does not have a specific position, and Wal-Mart declined to respond to questions.

“Whatever measures we ultimately take will be guided by government regulations and the desires of our customers and consumers,” Wal-Mart spokesman Gary Mickelson said.

Making a distinction

Cloning advocates predict consumers will temper their opposition when they realize the distinction between meat from clones and meat from the clones’ naturally produced children and grandchildren.

Several consumers and restaurateurs expressed concern about eating cloned meat but said they hadn’t really thought about meat or milk from a clone’s descendants.

Some owners of cloned animals said they have sold semen to other breeders, increasing the chance that some milk or meat from the offspring of clones already has found its way into the food chain, said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.

Mr. Hansen said consumers have several objections to cloning, including concern for the animals’ welfare.

“The FDA’s own data show that a large proportion of cloned animals do not make it to their first birthday,” or even survive gestation, Mr. Hansen said.

Also, calf clones often suffer from “large offspring syndrome,” with the clone born unusually large and prone to respiratory, cardiac and immune-system problems, critics say.

But the “offspring is a regular calf born like every other calf,” the biotech industry’s Dr. Glenn says, an opinion backed by the FDA. “The offspring are not clones, and there’s no need to be concerned about that.”

When the calf grows up, it simply will show the superior traits found in the cloned parent, she said.

“The benefit to consumers is that … [the calf] will have higher-quality milk or meat, with more consistency,” she said.

Critics counter that, given the ailments associated with cloned animals, even the offspring are likely to bear some aftereffects.

Breeding, not eating

Everyone agrees you’d have to be crazy to clone a cow just to make burgers.

Breeders pay an estimated $17,000 to $20,000 – down from $30,000 five years ago – to clone prized animals, industry officials and breeders say. So it would make no sense to send that animal to slaughter, with stockyards paying about $1 a pound – or around $1,200 – for a steer or heifer.

The industry says it’s unlikely any clones would make it into the food supply, but consumer groups say breeder clones may face the same fate as other cows when their breeding days are done – a trip to the butcher’s.

Still, given the cost, industry experts say they don’t foresee large herds of even clones’ offspring stampeding into the nation’s steakhouses any time soon.

Even with the FDA go-ahead, “food from cloned animals will never be a substantial part of the food supply,” Dr. Glenn predicted. “Even five years from now, foods from offspring, which are not clones themselves, will enter the marketplace slowly.”

The biotech trade group said it knows of only 570 clones, the majority of them cattle used for breeding or for show. That’s a fraction of the 90-plus million head of cattle in the U.S..

Breeders compare cloning technology to other types of assisted reproduction already widely used in agriculture, including artificial insemination, embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization.

In cloning, cells from one animal – usually a prize winner – are placed into an egg from which the existing DNA has been removed, and the egg is implanted in a surrogate mother for gestation. The resulting clone is a genetic copy of the donor animal.

Cloning allows breeders to create a double with the same meat or milk quality or ability to produce prize offspring, industry experts said.

Heart’s Hope, the offspring of a Holstein clone, won the junior champion prize at the Fort Worth stock show last month.

Owner Jeff Stookey of Milford, Ind., said he felt “very fortunate” that he had spent the $25,000 five years ago to clone his best cow – Shir-Man Astre Heart. About a year after the clone, ETN1, was born, the donor animal died of a heart attack.

The clone thus far has been used only to produce eggs, he said, including one that was implanted in a surrogate mother to become Heart’s Hope. The prize winner will have her own first calf in a few weeks.

Mr. Stookey said he plans to use the milk from Heart’s Hope on his farm, not sell it.

Lack of buyers?

But even when producers try to sell products developed from cloning, they may not find many buyers.

“I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” said Bob Sambol, owner of Dallas-based Bob’s Steak & Chop House. “It’s not worth it. The last thing I want to do is be controversial with a subject like cloning.”

Ultimately, consumers will vote with their dollars.

“This is an area where I don’t want to be a category leader,” said Marc Buehler, the Plano-based chief executive of LS Management Inc., which operates Texas Land & Cattle restaurants. “We’ll let the market dictate.”

Some consumers, like Mary Alice Tanguay of Carrollton, are wary of safety pronouncements from government bureaucrats.

“I guess I would be cautious about cloned meat until more studies are done,” said Ms. Tanguay, 51, who bought a ready-to-bake meatloaf recently at a Whole Foods Market in Plano. “It may be the same, it may not be. But there have been so many things that the FDA said were OK and that opinion changed afterward.”

Having failed to keep clones off the market, consumer groups are pushing for what they see as the next-best thing: labels.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is pushing for passage of her Cloned Food Labeling Act, which would require that all food from cloned animals and their progeny be labeled.

Introduced in January 2007, the bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and has picked up two co-sponsors.

Ms. Bowers, the Plano shopper, said the lack of labeling is what bothers her most.

“I think there should be,” she said on her recent visit to Kroger, “so that we have a choice whether to use it or not.”

A big believer in labels, she paused to scrutinize the “grain-fed” label on her sirloin steak, then moved on down the meat aisle.

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