Is Cloned Meat Safe or Ethical? How To Know If You Are Buying Milk Or Meat From Cloned Cattle
What Is Cloned Meat?
Scientists have been successfully cloning mammals since the late 1990s. Just as genetically modified GMO crops (and their perceived dangers) have entered the popular imagination and most grocery store shelves, so people now worry that the same is happening with cloned meat.
So what, exactly, IS cloned meat?
One version of cloned meat and dairy holds that it is the meat and milk from an actual cloned animal. That would be the equivalent of the meat you'd eat if Dolly the sheep cloned in July 1996, and which lived for six years, was butchered any time during her lifetime and sold as mutton, or if you drank milk or ate cheese or yogurt made from Dolly's milk. Such a scenario is highly unlikely simply because it is so very, very expensive to clone a large mammal like a cow or a sheep. It is estimated by some that it costs at least $15,000 to clone an cow, so that's not exactly the ground beef you are going to find behind the meat counter at Safeway.
So if meat from an actual cloned animal isn't what people mean by cloned meat, then what do people mean when they talk about cloned meat?
The current debate over animal clones, cloned meat and cloned dairy, and our food supply is not so much that we might eat animal clones, but that we will somehow consume the offspring of animal clones. In this scenario, a particularly prolific milk-producer or a phenomenally meaty and tasty animal is cloned. This clone, in turn, is bred with non-cloned animals in the hope of reproducing whatever it is about that animal that makes it produce so much food. The offspring of the cloned animal and the non-clone is then raised to become food, and it is milked or sold as meat at your local grocery store.
That is the food products we are talking about when we talk about cloned meat.
CNN reports on cloned meat in 2008
FDA rules cloned meat is safe: Reuters
Is Cloned Meat On My Supermarket Shelf?
Short answer: yes; there is milk and meat from cloned animals, or at leasttheir offspring, on your grocery store shelves.
The more nuanced, accurate answer is of course less easy, and that is that there is no way to know if cloned meat and cloned milk are on sale at your local Safeway store. There are absolutely zero labeling laws requiring a manufacturer to say if the meat or milk being sold has any ties to a cloned animal. Because the offspring of clones could have entered our food supply years ago, and they were not tracked, there is little way to know if a conventional burger or glass of milk comes from a cloned offspring. In March 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimated that around 600 cloned animals were already being used for breeding in the United States.
There is no way to test if the meat in your burger or the milk in your milkshake comes from a cloned animal.
Holy Cow!! That cow has muscles! Food and Science Collide
E.U. bans sale of cloned meat in July 2010
Whole Foods has implemented an animal welfare rating system to help consumer make informed decisions about their meat purchases
Is Cloned Meat Safe To Eat?
Both the United States and the European Union have declared in their own ways that cloned meat, as well as meat and dairy from clone offspring, are safe to eat.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in late 2006 that cloned meat is safe to eat, after reviewing over 700 scientific studies on cloned meat. Still, the general public wasn't convinced of the safety of cloned meat. People remained sketched out by the thought of eating Dolly, or anything resembling a cloned, scientifically engineered animal.
The FDA therefore did not approve cloned meat for retail sale or general consumption, and the FDA asked livestock producers and biotechnology firms to undertake a voluntary ban on selling cloned animals.
In 2008, the FDA no longer asked that the voluntary moratorium on selling cloned animal products as food extend to the offspring of clones. As a result, it is very likely that the United States food supply already has "cloned" meat or "cloned" dairy available on store shelves. The same holds true for Great Britain and Europe: chances are they are selling cloned meat and dairy in their supermarkets.
Again, the United States and certain departments of the European Union insist that cloned meat and cloned dairy are safe for humans to consume.
Opponents of cloned meat and dairy are not so sure, and their opposition generally takes one of two directions.
On the one hand, opponents of animal cloning for food purposes say, cloning itself is a relatively new science. Even if studies say the food is safe now, who can say if food from cloned animals will still be safe in six, eight, 10 generations from the original animal? Cloning, despite its name, is an imperfect science. The animal clone produce is not necessarily identical to its original, and many clones are not healthy or viable. How, then, can food descended from a clone be absolutely, always safe to eat?
The other objection to cloned meat and cloned dairy is less about food safety and more about food ethics. Cloning animals, welfare activist say, is itself unethical. Cloning them to exploit them for food is less ethical still.
On the other hand, proponents of food cloning, many of them in agribusiness and biotech industries, say that humankind and a secure, sustainable food supply depend on food cloning. There are ever more people on this planet, and it is hard and expensive to grow enough food to keep everyone well nourished. Isn't it only logical, then, to breed our livestock to be the best meat and milk producers they can possibly be? And what better way to do that than through cloning, where we are reproducing the best of the best?
So, to proponents and the government, cloned animal food products are perfectly safe to consume. To opponents of animal cloning, as well as skeptics and conspiracy theorists, anyone who believes it is safe is naive and overly credulous.
In July 2010, the European Union banned the sale of cloned meat, even though it had found the meat safe for human consumption. Their primary concerns were ethical rather than health-related.
How Do I Protect Myself From Consuming Cloned Food?
The best and surest way to protect yourself from inadvertently consuming cloned animal products is to buy only organic meat and organic milk.
While some consider the U.S. organic labeling laws to be a little loosey-goosey, the organic criteria in the U.S. do at least spell out that organic meat and organic dairy cannot come from the offspring of animal clones or cloned meat.
How Is Meat Cloned?
The science is way too complicated to explain in depth here — there's a reason why science fiction has told tales of human and animal clones for decades if not centuries, but why actual science didn't produce a mammal clone that could survive until 1996. Cloning is big-time science; it is hard to do and it is expensive to do.
The theory of cloning, on the other hand, is not that hard to grasp.
Basically, and this is very reductionist, if you wanted to clone a pig, here is what you would do: First, you'd take a donor egg from a female pig. Then you would extract the nucleus from that egg — all genetic information is stored in the nucleus — and replace it with another nucleus from the animal you want to clone. An electrical current or something similar is then passed through the "clone" egg to bring it back to life and get it to divide, multiply and grow as a normal fertilized egg will do.