NEW YORK - A broad coalition is urging consumers and grocery stores to refuse burgers, milk, and other products from cloned animals, following a U.S. government decision to lift a ban on the controversial foods.
Earlier this month, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) capped years of debate by lifting the ban on selling meat and dairy products from cloned cattle, swine, and goats. (There was not enough information to reach a conclusion on sheep, according to the FDA.)
Within hours, a petition hit cyberspace warning that "Genetically speaking, you meat eaters could be eating burgers from the same cow for years."
The petition will urge grocery stores to refuse to stock food from cloned animals. Signatures will be delivered to grocery stores, the U.S. Congress, and the FDA.
The campaign is sponsored by the advocacy group Friends of the Earth and a coalition of corporations, nonprofits, and politicians including Ben & Jerry's, the Consumer Federation of America, Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Food Safety, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).
The coalition says the FDA studies are inadequate to determine the safety of cloned meat because the sample size is too small -- there are only about 600 cloned animals in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- and because clones' offspring are not included in the assessment.
"The concern is that the majority of clones die either before or directly after birth. It took 227 tries to get Dolly. This indicates they're genetically abnormal," says Gillian Madill, genetic technologies campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "If we eat them, what are the consequences for our health? What about cancers and late-onset degenerative disease?"
"The FDA looked at short-term consequences, and even then, the evaluation is very limited and narrow in scope," Madill told OneWorld.
The FDA documents acknowledge that cloned livestock exhibit higher rates of prenatal death, large infant syndrome, and other "adverse outcomes."
These defects have given rise to concerns about animal welfare, too. The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit advocacy organization, has called cloning "the most brutal livestock breeding technology" in use.
The group also questions the safety of food from clones. In March 2007, it released a report critical of the FDA's risk assessment, calling for longer-term, peer-reviewed studies.
"The FDA hasn't done its job," says Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. "You couldn't even get a new animal drug approved with research as weak as the FDA used. We need to stop, have the FDA go back and do this right."
The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), however, is satisfied with the ruling, citing a "growing international consensus" and data supporting the safety of food from cloned animals.
"We're comfortable telling the public that they should not worry about this from a safety point of view," says Gregory Jaffe, director of the CSPI biotechnology project. "First, only healthy animals that reach maturity will enter into the food supply, and the offspring of clones don't have any of the animal health concerns that clones have. DNA is not passed to us when we eat milk or meat from animals."
Although CSPI does not take a stand on the ethical issues, Jaffe says the animal welfare concerns are worth examining. "Clearly there are issues for the surrogate mothers and for the clones themselves," he notes.
Not Likely to Hit Stores Soon
Because cloning is an expensive technology, it is more likely to be used for breeding stock than direct food production -- which means the offspring of cloned animals are more likely than clones themselves to show up in the food supply.
Producers are wading into the market slowly, in the wake of recent opinion polls indicating that a majority of the public is uncomfortable with food from cloned animals.
Major cattle and meat industry groups have expressed support for the ruling. "[Cloning] allows ranchers to duplicate their best breeding animals to quickly improve their herd," says Mary Geiger, a member of the communications team of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Clones are conventionally born, there is no genetic modification -- essentially, they are twins."
Jeremy Russell, communications director for the National Meat Association, a nonprofit trade association, notes that cloned meat is not likely to be hitting the shelves of local supermarkets anytime soon. "I have heard some companies are rightly concerned that they don't want to upset their customer base, so they're choosing not to use any cloning technology. I am sure other companies will experiment," he says.
To address consumer fears, the National Meat Association says it is pushing for an industry-wide animal management system to track cloned animals and their offspring.
At the same time that the FDA announced its ruling, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a statement supporting the assessment but requesting that U.S. farmers keep cloned meat off the market "during this transition time."
"The fact that the USDA can't back the decision of the FDA -- one says it's ready for market, one says it's not -- signifies some sort of scientific miss there," says Madill from Friends of the Earth.
"We need to focus more on promoting small, local farms who use naturally grown crops and livestock instead of finding technological answers to save big agriculture and slaughterhouses," she says.
But if cloned foods do become more commonly available in U.S. grocery stores, the next battle will likely be over labeling.
"At the very least, we need to demand that Congress require labeling of this unproven, untested new food," says Hanson of the Center for Food Safety, who believes consumers have the right to be fully informed about what they're purchasing and eating.
As for policing the meat departments of stores who take the no-clone pledge, the campaign members are counting on consumer pressure to keep grocers -- and farmers -- honest.
© 2008 One World