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Mad Science: Cloned Milk and Meat on the Fast Track

By Lee Hall

Reprinted from Satya (March 2007), pages 50-52.

 

The Bush Administration, poised for several years to force animal-cloning experiments into the food supply, rang in the New Year by pronouncing products from cloned animals and their offspring as safe for the retail market.

The Food and Drug Administration studied scientific reports: blood tests, physicals and nutritional analyses. Notably, the agency lacks authority to address the ethics of animal cloning. But if, following a 90-day public comment period, the agency’s report is adopted, the U.S. will be the first country to approve animal cloning in food production, and within just a few years cloned meat and milk could be on dinner tables—perhaps even by the end of 2007.

"Meat and milk from cattle, swine and goat clones is as safe to eat as the food we eat every day," said Stephen Sundlof, director of veterinary medicine for the FDA. "There is just not anything there that is conceivably hazardous to the public health." Thus, the FDA might not even require special labels.

Scientists will thereafter attempt to work out the kinks in their sheep and chicken cloning projects, and introduce genetically modified fish into the stream of commerce.

While nonhuman cloning has always been legal in the U.S., a voluntary moratorium on the sales of clones’ milk and flesh has applied since 2001, to give the FDA time for studies. A 2002 National Academy of Science report concluded that products derived from cloned animals do not “present a food safety concern,” and the FDA gave a tentative approval in 2003, but retreated after its own advisory panel found insufficient scientific agreement. Now the FDA’s ready to go again. Never mind that consumers aren’t asking for cloned meat and milk. And never mind that consuming any animal products, let alone cloned ones, is known to be wholly unnecessary for human health and welfare.

Dissonance and Hype

Applied to the cloned animals themselves, the term “welfare” would be oxymoronic. Many clones die as soon as they’re born; many more are born with severely distorted organs, heads or limbs. Cows have died trying to bear grotesquely oversized calves. Multiple piglets have been born without anuses and tails—a fatal condition. Dolly the sheep clone died young, after suffering from illnesses normally seen in older sheep. The sibling clone of the much-vaunted Afghan puppy cloned in South Korea in 2005—Time magazine’s Invention of the Year—survived only three weeks. And as recently as July 2005, scientists at Texas A&M University, deemed the world’s leading team after cloning a half-dozen species, acknowledged that 95 to 99 percent of cloning procedures fail. Contrast that with the hype on cloning companies’ websites. “Cloning enhances animal wellbeing,” declares the Biotechnology Industry Organization; and Clonesafety.org, sponsored by cloning firms Cyagra, stART Licensing, and ViaGen, Inc., assures us: “In fact, clones are the ‘rock stars’ of the barnyard, and therefore are treated like royalty.”

The FDA acknowledges that cloned animals are susceptible to birth defects and life-threatening problems, but dismisses the issue, insisting that normal federal inspections will keep problems out of the food supply. The companies promise they’re ready to deliver genetic replicas of animals with histories of producing commercially superior offspring—that is, offspring most likely to be transformed into prime beef and bacon, or unusually prolific milk producers. The dairy industry, of course, is more than prolific already—so much so, that the government obliges taxpayers to buy surplus milk. But cloning companies are getting ready to tout big health promises too . For human medicine, they tell us, cloning may be used to secrete therapeutic proteins in cow’s milk, to produce “humanized antibodies” for use as vaccines, or to produce tissues modified for organ transplants. Don’t be surprised, then, if they argue the dairy business must remain in schools and health institutes.

Anti-Vivisection?

Human cloning is the subject of fierce debate, and the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Cloning calls on member states to “prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.” But the dignity of nonhuman life attracts significantly less attention. A widely cited series of polls carried out by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology reported that over 60 percent of U.S. consumers are uncomfortable with animal cloning, but only about 10 percent of those respondents saw the animals at the core of their discomfort. Consumers don’t necessarily want cloning banned, but they are looking for assurances that new products are safe. And a greater level of public acceptance appears when uses are said to offer direct human benefits.

This situation should be ringing alarm bells in the animal advocacy field. After all, the point of animal advocacy is to bring humanity around to the idea that nonhuman animals are conscious of their life experiences, and—just as reflected in human constitutional law—consciousness means an individual has inherent value. Yet the science-oriented advocacy groups have said little, and those who have opined are hardly pillars of opposition. Calling cloning “highly inefficient,” the director of the American Anti-Vivisection Society issued a press release in late December to say the “FDA should not be permitted to proceed in a regulatory vacuum.” From the animal-advocacy perspective, is a “regulatory vacuum” the real problem? With this statement, the AAVS reinforces the mainstream view—essentially arguing for codification of the human prerogative to indulge in the practice of cloning.

Levels of Control

To clone, scientists replace all genetic material in an egg with a mature cell containing the genetic code of the original animal. An electric shock jump-starts the egg’s growth, and it’s then implanted into a uterus. According to proponents, clones are simply later-born twins of their originals, and cloning merely expands reproduction technology that’s been accepted in agribusiness since the 1950s. In January, when a calf of a cloned dairy cow was born on a British farm for the first time, Simon Gee of the breeder’s group Holstein UK said the calf, Dundee Paradise, resulted from "conventional breeding technology" and was “born as the majority of the 220,000 animals that we register in the UK every year are born—as a result of artificial insemination.” But the majority of those registered animals don’t come from embryos imported from U.S. labs, as Dundee Paradise did. Cloning involves a new level of control over living beings by elite experts, and is manipulative in the extreme.

Nevertheless, if domination and control is at the core of cloning, then the basis of the problem is the public’s willingness to consume other animals in the first place. As long as social attitudes about consuming animal products remain unchanged, virtually any “useful” manipulation will, sooner or later, be allowed.

This is why a handful of companies anticipate a green light for buyers of clones and products derived from them. Prairie State Semen Inc. of Illinois wants a go-ahead to ship out the semen of cloned show pigs like The Man, valued at $77,000 and winner at the 2000 Indiana State Fair. ViaGen of Texas produces the clones and is expected to benefit most from the FDA ruling. Backed by a billionaire investor, ViaGen cloned 65 cows and five horses last year. The company website showcases clones of animals such as the “legendary barrel racing champion Scamper,” and “Kung Fu, the mother of many famous rodeo bulls.”

Once the company makes a profit, ViaGen says, it will offer pro bono services to stave off extinctions. Eight wildcat clones produced under the auspices of the Audubon Nature Institute of New Orleans are held as proof. As kittens, they were exhibited at the Audubon Zoo. Such projects not only require the experimental use of other cats’ wombs; they fail also to appreciate the interests of wildcats to live in their own ways, rather than as zoo exhibits or laboratory specimens. Moreover, because the idea that cloning could prevent extinctions does not address habitat degradation or other causes of accelerated extinction, it’s poised to defeat its own purpose. And as scientists hope to soon be routinely cloning animals for agribusiness, they’re supporting the very industry ruining habitats throughout the world.

Your Comments, Please

The FDA is seeking comments from the public until April 2, 2007. To read the FDA’s assessment and submit electronic comments, visit the FDA site (from which you can scroll to submit your text directly to the FDA). Written comments may be sent to: Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, Maryland 20852. Include the docket number 2003N-0573.

Although agitation at the administrative level is important, clearly it’s not enough. Asking whether cloned meat and milk are safe is all the FDA can and will do. But that’s not the real question; nor is a ruling on labels a real solution. Implicated here is a deeper question than a regulatory body can reach: Why clone at all?

Some consumer activists are asking food companies and restaurants to shun cloned animal products. They’re on the right track, but this assumes that it’s enough to mandate labels so people have an option to reject cloned products. The animals being cloned have no such option. To avoid supporting the system of domination allowing these particular manipulations, we must avoid animal products entirely.

This article is reprinted from Satya, a monthly publication focusing on vegetarianism, environmentalism, animal advocacy, and social justice.