Time to Clean Up After Cloning Cattle

Posted by Pete Shanks August 17, 2010
Biopolitical Times

The USDA is trying to keep cloned animals out of the food supply in order to manage a "smooth and orderly" transition to marketing them. A better move would be to, ah, just keep them out of the food supply.

The topic has been on the back burner for a couple of years, since the FDA ruled that meat and milk from cloned cattle, pigs and goats was safe, but the USDA simultaneously called for a voluntary moratorium. Many disagreed about the safety decision, and even the FDA admitted (pp. ii–iii of its report) that

"cloning raises many ethical and economic concerns. These issues may be important to members of the public, however, they are not within FDA's mission and therefore not within the purview of this Risk Assessment."

Also significant is that science has progressed in the three years since the FDA conducted its survey, especially in the area of epigenetics. There is a useful discussion in Cloned Farm Animals -- A 'Killing Application'? -- a recent Report [pdf] by Testbiotech, a German research group. They recommend that, at a minimum, further research be conducted while the European ban on cloned livestock is maintained.

The issue gained renewed attention after a July 30th article in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune revealed that milk and perhaps meat from the descendants of clones was being sold in Britain, Switzerland and possibly elsewhere, without the knowledge of either public or governments. The article ended with a quote suggesting that cloning is "inevitable" and stressed that European governments do not want a "trade war" with the U.S. However, if it was expected, by the author or his sources, to facilitate the spread of livestock cloning, they were in for a rude surprise.

In Britain, the story became a major scandal. For full details, follow the coverage by GMWatch -- if the story is no longer linked from their front page, head into the News archives for previous updates, back to here, or check their Twitter feed.

Amusingly, the Daily Telegraph set up duelling editorials on the safety issue, and couldn't get a fight going. On one side, Peter Melchett of the Soil Association argued against cloning animals; on the other, Sir Ian Wilmut argued that even if the meat is as safe as the FDA said it was, "there is a clear reason to be concerned about the use of cloning in animal breeding" because it "raises troubling ethical concerns about animal welfare."

The controversy continues to spread. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Canada last week and had to face questions from a skeptical press. He claimed that he didn't know whether cloned cows or their offspring had made it into the U.S. food supply, but insisted that they were safe. The Montreal Gazette also noted:

Mr. Vilsack said that because science is often "ahead of the regulatory process and ahead of the ethics discussion," the U.S. will continue their "moratorium" on not allowing the sale of meat from cloned animals until the products are widely accepted as safe.

This is not quite destroying the village in order to save it, but it certainly seems bizarre. Especially when you see the reaction to this BBC story:

Cattle 'cloned from dead animals'

Those of us who have been involved with the cloning issue for a while may be unfazed by this revelation, but the story suddenly metastasized:

Dead cow carcasses "resurrected" to produce cloned beef

(Also here and here and here, for instance.) People just do not like cloning. Someone should tell Vilsack. And it's not at all clear that farmers want it either. Mark Rueth is a Wisconsin dairy farmer who experimented with cloned cattle a few years ago, and still has a few offspring of clones in his herd. Rueth and his partner quit cloning because it's too expensive and not the best way to improve their herd. This is what he says about cloning now:

"It was popular a few years ago, but it's faded."

So why exactly is the USDA still trying to promote the technology? It's past time to draw a line under this failed experiment and move forward with more humane -- and more efficient -- methods of farming.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: