Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, North America

U.S.: Questions of Food Safety Dog Cloned Beef

Daniel Porras

NEW YORK, Nov 11 2003 (IPS) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) faces increasing criticism for announcing that cloned animals are probably safe to eat, a claim that many scientists and consumer groups say is premature and scientifically unsupported.

In late October the FDA said, “food products derived from animal clones and their offspring are likely to be as safe to eat as food from their non-clone counterparts, based on all the evidence available”.

Days after the statement, some scientists and consumer groups called for further studies, saying the agency had ignored broader issues of public health and animal welfare.

Even a scientific review panel within the U.S. administration said there was not enough evidence to support the FDA conclusion and asked for more studies, according to the ‘New York Times’.

“The FDA sent a message around the world that clones are safe for humans and that cloning isn’t harmful to animals,” said Carol Tucker of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) in an interview with IPS.

“The problem is they don’t have scientific evidence to back that up.”

Tucker charged that pressure from the biotech industry put animal cloning on a ‘fast-track’ for approval, despite what she sees as widespread anti-cloning sentiment among the U.S. public.

Because of a current voluntary marketing moratorium, U.S. consumers are not knowingly eating products made from animals cloned from adult cells, although cattle cloned from embryos in the 1980s might still exist and contribute to the food supply, according to the Times.

But the voluntary moratorium will likely be lifted following the FDA’s announcement. Los Angeles-based ViaGen Biotech predicts that it will begin to receive thousands of orders to clone breeding animals when the moratorium is lifted, reported ‘The Wall Street Journal’.

While it has not been shown that consuming cloned animal products harms human health, critics say the uncertainties surrounding the large-scale introduction of cloned animals into the gene pool could have public health implications and requires further study.

In addition, some scientists feel that the existence of large populations of cloned animals could jeopardise efforts to stop the spread of disease.

“The only way to overcome disease is to have genetic diversity,” says Dr. Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) in California State.

Cloned animals share the same DNA, the substance that translates genes into physical traits. If more animals have the same genes, viruses and other disease can spread more easily, he added in an interview.

“Basic epidemiology tells us that if you have a single basis of resistance, viruses will overcome that resistance and flourish,” Rosset said. “Putting cloned animals in cramped quarters in a factory farm runs counter to the basic epidemiology of disease control.”

According to Rosset, the rush to move animal cloning into the mainstream without robust studies and public debate follows the same pattern as the development of genetically modified crops, where overall policy conclusions were dominated by industry, and dissenting scientists were not given wide attention.

CFA’s Tucker agrees, saying biotech companies have a stronghold on the under funded FDA, which tends to adopt the views of industry.

Cyagra Inc., a biotech firm in Massachusetts State specialising in cloning cattle, calls the process a “new cutting-edge breeding management option”.

Its website lists these benefits of cattle cloning: an increased supply of semen and embryos, preserving the desired genetic traits of particular animals, and “re-creating cows and bulls without the originals’ reproductive deficiencies”.

Cloning also ensures the best milk and meat producers in the herd are reproduced, says Lisa Dry of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation. When asked to comment on the potential for the spread of disease among herds of genetically similar animals, she said, “We don’t have a whole lot of information on that yet. We usually look to the FDA.”

According to CFA’s Tucker, the United States does not need more meat and dairy. And while some poor countries could benefit from animals that produce more milk and eggs, they will not be able to afford cloning technologies, which are strongly protected by biotech companies and not cost effective, she added.

Rosset agreed, saying that even if cloning did become cost effective it would never benefit poor farmers in the South or U.S. family farms. Cloning a bull can cost 20,000 dollars, according to the ‘Wall Street Journal’.

The FDA began its risk assessment of animal cloning two years ago, and commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the scientific information.

In 2002, the Academy’s board on agricultural and natural resources released ‘Animal Biotechnology: Science Based Concerns’, a book that expressed concern about the amount of scientific uncertainty around genetic modification of animals.

In the last chapter, the authors wrote, “Molecular breeding by DNA shuffling will result in at least some outcomes that fundamentally are uncertain and always will be virtually impossible to predict…”

“Attempts to estimate the probability of harm from such a fundamentally uncertain activity must be undertaken with great care since ignorance-of-ignorance might lead to serious errors.”

Some critics note that researchers continually create malformed animals, and those cloning cattle are plagued by ‘large calf syndrome’, where calves grow so big in the womb that the mother cow is killed or has to undergo a caesarean section.

In addition, many cloned animals have abnormalities that are not initially apparent, and evidence shows that cloned animals have shorter lifespans and are more susceptible to disease, according to ‘New Scientist’ magazine.

Dolly, the sheep cloned in Scotland in 1997, was the first in a long line of “successfully” cloned animals, including mice, pigs, cows, goats, cats, rats and fish.

To create Dolly scientists took the nucleus of a single mammary cell from one sheep and inserted it into a fertilised egg. The egg was then inserted into a surrogate mother and Dolly came into the world.

Beyond the fanfare of being the first publicised clone, Dolly lived a short and complicated life. She surprised scientists when she died of premature aging, seen by some as an affirmation of the inexact science of duplicating animals using DNA.

Experts say Dolly’s physiology was distorted because scientists created her with the DNA of a six-year-old sheep, causing her to suffer prematurely from arthritis and lung disease.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents the 11-billion-dollar organic industry in North America, says the FDA is morally obliged to take a precautionary approach to cloning.

“(The FDA’s) knowledge must extend well beyond short-term findings if milk, meat and other foods from cloned animals are to enter the food system,” said OTA Executive Director Katherine DiMatteo in a statement on the OTA website.

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