Dolly was the first mammal ever cloned. She eventually gave birth to Bonnie, the lamb next to her. (Courtesy of NIH/Roslin Institute, Edinburgh)
The FDA says meat and milk from cloned animals is safe to eat. But Living on Earth's Jeff Young tells us Congress and consumers aren't so sure. And food safety expert and author Marion Nestle tells us whether food from clones could end up at your local market.
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The next time you order a double cheeseburger, you may get exactly that: twin burgers made from beef cattle that have been cloned. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded that milk and meat from cloned animals is safe to eat. But as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports—officials now have a food fight on their hands.
YOUNG: The FDA says its years long scientific review found food from clones virtually identical to that from other animals.
SUNDLOF: In other words, the risk assessment concludes that the meat and milk from cattle, swine, and goats are as safe to eat as the food we eat every day.
YOUNG: That’s FDA food safety director Stephen Sundlof. Sundlof says these findings are similar to those from a 2002 review by the National Academy of Sciences, and work by scientific panels in other countries. But several consumer and public health groups remain skeptical. Joe Mendelson at the advocacy group Center for Food Safety says FDA rushed to judgment and ignored concerns about the many cloned animals that die shortly after birth.
MENDELSON: It eliminates any assessment of all the cloning problems that happen to animals when they’re born and through their young age with the assumption that we’ll keep those animals out of the food supply. We think that’s an assumption that the FDA, given its track record, can’t make.
YOUNG: Congress is also upset. In an angry press release, Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski condemned the FDA decision as reckless. She says the decision disregards language in the pending farm bill that would require more study on cloned animals. And Connecticut Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro says spending bills also asked FDA to take more time.
DELAURO: And now we have the go ahead and we without, uh, really taking into consideration either Congress’ directive, or more importantly, the public’s uncertainty. I’m not going to make a scientific judgment. I am not a scientist. But our thought was that we ought to move more slowly.
YOUNG: DeLauro and Mikulski also proposed bills that would label any food product that came from a clone. Some 30,000 people wrote to FDA about clones and roughly half of those said they think food from a cloned animal should at least carry a label. But the FDA’s Stephen Sundlof says the agency can’t do that.
SUNDLOF: It’s not a matter of whether or not we think we should or not. It’s a matter of—do we have the authority to require that companies label their product. And clearly in this case we don’t believe that we do.
YOUNG: The U.S. Agriculture Department wants cloning companies to stand by a temporary moratorium on cloned food. But as for now, only that voluntary moratorium and the high cost of cloning keeps those products off your supermarket shelves. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
GELLERMAN: But will cloned pigs fly with consumers? It’s a question for Marion Nestle, author of the books: “Safe Food” and “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.” Well Professor Nestle, would you eat cloned meat?
NESTLE: Oh, I probably would if I had to but why would I want to? I can’t think of a single reason why I would want to. There’s plenty of really good beef around—naturally raised, grazed on grass, and all of those other good things. I don’t really see why we need this.
GELLERMAN: Hmm. But in the past, how successful have companies been at marketing, you know, scientific breakthroughs in food.
NESTLE: Well I’m not sure this is a scientific breakthrough. I think that remains to be seen. Whether this is something that’s just scientific or whether it has real value for consumers is something that we still have to see. When it comes to genetically modified foods, most of the benefits that we’ve seen so far have been to food producers, not to consumers.
GELLERMAN: Remember the flavor savor tomato?
NESTLE: I do. I remember it quite well. And one of the wonderful things about it was that it was going to be clearly labeled as a breakthrough in modern technology. But as it turned out it wasn’t a breakthrough because they weren’t able to produce it and so it never went on the market. They had developed the technology for temperate zone agriculture and then they tried to grow it in the south and it just didn’t grow.
NESTLE: Well I think every single survey that I have ever seen for the last, now almost 20 years, indicates that people are extremely suspicious of genetically modified foods or cloned animals or any of those sorts of things. They have great hesitations about them. And I think a lot of those problems could be solved if they were labeled as such so that people actually had a choice.
GELLERMAN: Yeah. I’m wondering if you had like you know, free-range chicken or organic beef—would it still be organic or would it still be free range if it came from a cloned animal?
NESTLE: Oh, I don’t think so. In fact the rules for organics specifically exclude genetically modified products.
GELLERMAN: So you think they’ll have to go the labeling route whether they want to or not?
NESTLE: They say they’re not going to label because there’s no difference between animals that are cloned and animals that are not. The FDA makes its decisions exclusively on one criterion and that’s safety for human health—whether they’ve tested enough whether—it’s, it’s very hard to prove that something is perfectly safe. But it’s probably safe enough. I don’t think that safety is the issue. Just because it’s safe doesn’t mean it’s necessarily acceptable. And that’s why this decision of the FDA’s is so—I think, in some ways, hilariously funny. Because on the same day that the FDA came out with its press release saying that these things were safe to eat and there was no reason not to eat them and off they go into the food supply, the Department of Agriculture said, ‘please don’t put it in the food supply. Please don’t do it.’ I mean, that’s really funny. One government agency is saying ‘let’s do it,’ and the other agency is saying ‘whoa! Don’t! Wait, we’re not ready for this.’
GELLERMAN: So I’m not going to see it in my supermarket soon, you don’t think?
NESTLE: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think if companies do put cloned meat into the food supply and don’t label it as such, which they do not have to do under the FDA ruling, and somebody finds out that it’s cloned—I think that company’s going to have a lot of problems.
GELLERMAN: Well Professor Nestle, thank you very much.
NESTLE: My pleasure.
GELLERMAN: Professor Marion Nestle is the author of “What to Eat” and “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.”
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