Feb. 14, 2008 (Boston) -- Many consumers want meat produced by cloning to be easily identified as such. Now a company based in Ireland is promoting its system for tracing the meat of any cloned animal wherever it may go in the food supply. For this tracing system to work, however, the unique DNA profiles of clones must be publicly available.
Patrick Cunningham, PhD, chief science adviser to the Irish government and a founding executive of the company IdentiGEN, advocated for open access to cloned animal DNA at this week's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. Major chain stores and meat packers in the United States, he says, want to offer discerning shoppers certifiably "clone free" meat products. "They should have a right to do that," he says.
Cunningham says companies that clone animals should keep a library of "snips" of their DNA. That way, anyone wishing to screen for traces of cloned meat in food could ask a company like his to compare product samples with the genetic profiles of clones on file. Big retailers and food producers in Ireland and the U.K. now use IdentiGEN to certify other qualities of meat products, as well as to assist in safety recalls.
In the United States, Kroger, Safeway, Dean Foods, and Whole Foods have considered marketing "no clone" meat.
Mark Walton, PhD, president of ViaGen, a company that clones animals for use in agriculture, says he doesn't think a DNA tracing system is justified. "It's hard to imagine a scientific reason or a health reason that you would need to follow animals at all," he says.
FDA: Cloned Meat Safe
The FDA has repeatedly assured American consumers that meat produced by cloning is safe to eat, and the agency says it will not require special labeling on food containing products of cloned animals or their offspring sold in the United States. Europe's food safety agency has reached the same conclusion.
Walton attributes consumers' wariness of cloning to "the fear of the unknown."
The use of cloning for producing food is often misunderstood. For one thing, it probably won't be used to make thousands of copies of an animal expressly for slaughter. A cloned cow now costs about $13,500, compared with the market price of about $1,000 for a normal steer.
"Cloning technology is in fact a breeding technology," Walton says.
The process is called "somatic cell nuclear transfer," which is how the famous sheep "Dolly" was cloned in 1996. Producers use this process to clone highly desirable breeding animals. For decades, farmers have routinely ordered semen from choice male animals to artificially inseminate their herds, but one prize stud can only produce so much semen. In theory, 10, 20, 100, or more clones of him increase the yield of his genetic material that many times.
So the clone's offspring is what will be most commonly eaten. That doesn't mean people won't ever eat clones, however. Even breeding livestock are sold for meat once they're past their prime. At present, the food industry is supposed to be observing a voluntary moratorium on selling the meat of clones the U.S., but "it's not illegal to put clones on the market," Cunningham says.
A national poll conducted in 2007 by the Consumers Union, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, found that 89% of those polled wanted labels to identify food containing cloned animal products. The Consumers Union opposes the use of cloning in agriculture.
Labeling isn't as simple as slapping a sticker on a steak that comes from a clone. Parts of a single beef cow, for example, can end up in countless different consumer products. DNA can be retrieved from meat even if it has been cooked, frozen, or processed in other ways. With genetic profiles, clones or offspring of clones could be detected in anything from soup to sirloin.
Otherwise, it is very difficult to trace meat in processed foods back to specific animals. Unlike Europe and Canada, the United States does not have a system in place to trace the provenance of meat from farm to feedlot to factory to freezer.
Walton says it could be years before cloning catches up with conventional breeding methods in terms of cost and becomes widely used, but it is being done today. He says his company has cloned about 400-500 animals in the past four years. "They're out there," he says.