Less than a dozen years after Dolly the sheep became the world's first cloned mammal, grocers and restaurateurs are digesting the fact that milk and meat from cloned animals could soon filter into their supply chains.
The government took major steps toward easing cloned livestock and their offspring into the food supply in mid-January, when the Food and Drug Administration concluded they're safe to eat.
The question is, will consumers swallow the new technology? And how will food businesses cope if their customers balk?
Many food merchants are still framing their policies while they warily monitor public opinion. The historic commercial debut of cloning comes in an era when a significant segment of consumers have rejected other foods the FDA deemed safe, such as milk from hormone-treated cows and genetically modified corn.
Cloning is an attempt to create a new animal using the DNA from an existing adult animal. The FDA, while noting that livestock cloning produces many malformed or ill newborn animals, said cloned animals that survive for several months after birth can be healthy. They can reproduce normally and produce healthy young, the FDA said. The agency said it found no signs that food from healthy clones is harmful to humans, and predicted that sickly clones would be excluded from the food supply.
Consumer groups, however, have called FDA's positive safety assessment hasty and ill-founded. The Center for Food Safety said the FDA based many conclusions on small or limited studies, many of them financed by cloning companies. Clones that appear healthy can have infections, or abnormalities that could affect food quality such as unusual proteins or imbalances between protein and fats, the group said. Further studies should be done to evaluate clones and their offspring, the organization said.
Such groups are urging consumers to press their supermarkets and restaurants to refuse food from clones. And those businesses are being peppered with inquiries like "Will my hamburger meat come from a cloned cow?" and "Are clones kosher?"
Independent grocer Sam Mogannam said he didn't need any calls from his customers to know if they'd accept food from cloned lineages. He's sure they won't. And he has no intention of stocking any at Bi-Rite Market, which he bills as a mecca for organic, sustainable and non-artificial foods in San Francisco's Mission District.
"We believe in allowing nature to take its due course," he said. "I know our customers wouldn't support us if they knew we were knowingly accepting products from clones or their offspring."
But food merchants, from small shop owners to national supermarket chains, could face formidable challenges if they want to guarantee customers the option of avoiding all products linked to cloning.
No public system is in place to alert food sellers when products from animal lines that include clones could reach their shelves - whether in the form of a rib-eye steak, a quart of low-fat milk, a can of beef minestrone or a wedge of sharp cheddar.
Consumer groups such as the Center for Food Safety and Consumers Union support mandatory labeling of all products linked to cloning, from raw meat to meatball sandwiches. They're backing bills proposed in Congress and by a few state legislators, including state Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco. Without labeling, they argue, any food safety problems that did arise from cloning would never be linked to the technology.
Some retailers, after hearing from customers, are also calling for some form of government action. Two supermarket chains with a significant presence in Northern California, Safeway and Whole Foods Market, say the government should oversee a system to track clones through the food supply. It should also consider other means, such as food labeling, to ensure that consumers can make informed choices about products of cloning, the companies said.
"The lack of effective governmental oversight and tracking could mean consumers will lose the ability to choose clone-free products," Whole Foods spokeswoman Margaret Wittenberg said.
The FDA maintains that no labeling or disclosure requirements are necessary to protect public health. The agency, after years of study, issued a lengthy report Jan. 15 concluding that milk and meat from cloned cattle, pigs and goats are safe for consumption. The FDA said it had too little information to assess cloned sheep, but it found no food safety problems connected with the progeny of clones.
The offspring of all cloned livestock were immediately cleared as food sources by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, based on the FDA's findings. Clones themselves - cattle, pigs and goats - will also enter the food supply. But when, and under what regulatory scheme, if any, has not yet been decided.
The USDA is inviting industry input as it develops a plan to usher cloned animals into the market. In the meantime, the agency is asking companies that have created or purchased clones to honor a voluntary ban on selling their meat or milk for food.
This means that Ditto, a cloned cow created by a UC Davis researcher, can't be a food source just yet because the university honors the temporary ban. But UC Davis is now free to sell milk or meat from Ditto's daughter, an unnamed Holstein cow conceived by sexual reproduction.
Even before the FDA's favorable report, a few clone owners admitted in various news reports that they had already sold milk or meat from the animals as food.
As the rules stand now, livestock breeders and milk or meat suppliers have no legal obligation to disclose to either food manufacturers or consumers that a product came from a cloned animal line. Some vendors plan to keep their products clear of cloned lineages, but the FDA may not permit packages to bear a voluntary label such as "clone free."
Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, one of the nation's largest food retailers, said its customers are demanding more information. The company acknowledged that the government conducted important studies on food from clones. But to help shoppers make informed choices about products tied to cloning, Safeway supports additional studies "that would help ensure changes to federal policy are done in a manner that maintains consumer confidence and informed decision making."
The Pleasanton chain, which has 269 stores in Northern California, is asking its suppliers to deliver no products from cloned animals while the government mulls its options. "Meanwhile, the federal government should exercise its authority and expertise to determine an appropriate regulatory framework, including traceability and labeling," Safeway said in response to a Chronicle inquiry. Safeway declined to say whether it will accept foods from the offspring of clones.
Trader Joe's, a Monrovia (Los Angeles County) grocery chain that carries many organic product lines, did not respond to The Chronicle's query.
Bruce Knight, USDA undersecretary for marketing, said the agency is willing to help industry members create a tracking and certification program if they request it. The USDA already administers standards and certification of organic products. Knight said the USDA would work with companies that want to set up voluntary labeling of food from clones.
Few food businesses have actively sought to sell products from cloned animal lines, but all could be affected by the few U.S. cloning companies in business. Their customers are farmers who want replicas of valuable breeding animals - clones of a prize bull, for example, whose semen fetches high prices for artificial insemination. As breeders, cloned animals could quickly influence the gene pool of U.S. livestock. The preserved semen of one bull can be sent throughout the country to produce thousands of descendants.
One healthy cloned calf can cost as much as $20,000. But these expensive animals may enter the meat supply when their reproductive lives wane. Their milk will also be sold for dairy products.
At this point, retailers that want to avoid food from clones are relying on private agreements with their suppliers, who in turn have to trust their own sources. Meat packers may be able to exclude some clones by consulting an industry database of cloned animals whose owners volunteer to register them. The two major livestock cloning companies, ViaGen Inc. and Trans Ova Genetics, are developing the registry with the certification company AgInfoLink. Meatpackers would be able to scan or read an animal's ear tag to identify clones, said AgInfoLink executive Glenn Smith.
At this point, AgInfoLink doesn't plan to track the milk, semen or offspring of clones. But Smith said that could change if retailers request such services.
Most food outlets that have taken a stand on cloning have said they will exclude clones themselves, but not necessarily food from their progeny.
Natural foods retailer Whole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, which has 24 stores in Northern California, said its products will remain free of both clones and their descendants.
"We are working with our supplier community to develop a chain of custody records that trace product breeding stock through multiple generations," said Edmund LaMacchia, vice president of purchasing for perishables.
It's not clear, however, that all USDA-certified organic operations will be completely "clone free." Some organic producers say they're not sure yet how they can guarantee that their animals have no ties to cloning. That includes Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery in Marin County, which supplies all the dairy products for Sam Mogannam's Mission District market and nearby ice cream store.
Like most dairy operators, Straus relies on artificial insemination to reproduce his herd. Straus wants the government to require semen suppliers to reveal whether their products come from a cloned bull or its young. Without such certainty, Straus said, dairies might lose their organic certification from the USDA.
USDA's organic standards do rule out clones, but the agency may permit the use of a clone's descendants, Knight said. Therefore, consumers who want to avoid food from both clones and their offspring may not be able to rely solely on the organic label.
Buying only kosher foods won't insulate consumers from products of cloning at all. Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union, which certifies food items as kosher, said cloned animals would qualify as long as they belong to a single kosher species, such as cattle, sheep and goats.
At this point, consumer choice rests on a patchwork chain of voluntary agreements among suppliers and retailers.
The first time many Americans take a bite of food from a cloned animal or its offspring, they may never know it.
Cloning's imperfections at center of debate
Twenty years from now, the eating public may blithely accept food from cloned animals. But at this point, consumer groups are aghast at government actions to usher cloned livestock and their offspring into the U.S. food supply. To a large extent, the resistance stems from the fact that livestock cloning is still an imperfect art.
The Food and Drug Administration found in January that food from healthy clones and their progeny is safe. But in the same lengthy report, the FDA also detailed snags in the current art of animal cloning that reduce its rate of producing healthy clones to less than 10 percent. Many cloned embryos die or develop into sickly newborns.
Among consumer groups, those technical snags have raised questions not only about food safety, but also about animal welfare and ethics. They contend that further study may reveal health dangers the FDA didn't discover, as new testing methods emerge. In the FDA's view, future research will not only confirm the safety of food from clones, but will also improve methods of creating them.
Clones are made by coaxing a single adult cell from the original animal - call it a bull named George - to form an embryo that will become George2. The nucleus containing George's DNA is swapped into an egg cell from a cow, after the egg's nucleus is removed. The hope is that the resulting embryo, implanted in a surrogate mother, will be an exact copy of George. But about 90 percent of the time, that doesn't happen.
Clones can be born grossly malformed, and many die within six months. The fetuses can grow too large, causing difficult, extended pregnancies ending with delivery by cesarean section, the FDA found in a review of scientific studies.
But the FDA said clones that survive past six months are often healthy and fertile. Their offspring have even fewer health problems, the agency said. No significant differences appeared in milk or meat from cloned animal lines and their non-cloned counterparts, FDA reported.
The FDA acknowledged that newborn clones are often sick or dying, but said those animals would never pass inspection for entry into the food supply.
Consumer groups aren't convinced that cloning raises no safety concerns. For example, they suspect that many young clones will survive only through treatment with antibiotics and other drugs. Such animals could enter the food supply and affect human health, they contend.
An ethics board advising the European Food Safety Authority concluded in January that cloning for food production cannot be justified at this point because of the suffering of both deformed clones and their surrogate mothers, or dams, in animal breeding terms.
On the question of food safety, however, the European Food Safety Authority agreed with the FDA. The FDA, whose purview is limited to food safety, did not evaluate the ethics of cloning.
Read the Center for Food Safety's critique of FDA's report: www.centerforfood safety.org/Policy.cfm
E-mail Bernadette Tansey at email@example.com.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle