My Big Beef with Cloned Cattle

Go Ahead, Drink Bacon Grease for Breakfast

The meat and milk from cloned animals are safe to eat and should be allowed for sale, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

And you'll never know, anyway, because the labeling will be a clone of the labeling used for non-cloned beef.  No special labeling is needed, the FDA says in an article published in the Jan. 1 issue of Theriogenology and in the full 678-page study posted on the FDA web site last week.

The less we know the better, apparently.  Why else would the results of a four-year investigation in cloning safety be announced quietly between Christmas and New Year's?

Cloning dates back hundreds of days

On one level, we've allowed cloned beef to penetrate America for years.  It's called McDonald's.  While not technically cloned, all billion or so of the hamburger patties sold are indistinguishable from each other.  This is our future.

On another level, you might have already eaten real cloned beef.  Cloning livestock has been going on for five years now, and the FDA merely initiated a voluntary moratorium in 2003 on the commercial sale of the offspring of cloned animals.  In this era of censorship and compromised priorities at the CDC, EPA and NASA, the FDA didn't have the teeth to make the sale of cloned animal products illegal.

Cloning advocates are already painting us concerned consumers as Luddites, with minds too feeble to comprehend that cloning is just an extension of animal husbandry practices that have taken place for centuries.  This is a natural progression, they say, like feeding herbivorous cattle the ground-up remains of other animals, which somehow brought about mad cow disease.

As safe as cloned mother's milk

Are cloned animal products safe?  Probably, but that's not the whole issue.  Cloned cattle would be a chip off the old chipped beef, genetically identical to the progenitors.  Scientists take the DNA of a prized bull or dairy cow and insert this into a hollowed-out nearly microscopic cattle egg.  An electrical shock, eerily familiar to Frankenstein, induces the egg to grow.

Issue one is long-term human safety.  While the practice is likely safe, only a few years have passed since the dawn of cloning to truly understand the impact this would have on millions of livestock consumed by hundreds of millions of people.

Issue two is the long-term viability of the food supply.  Nature likes diversity; this is why most animals reproduce sexually.  A disease can more easily wipe out an entire herd if each animal is genetically identical.

Issue three is the appalling secrecy.  Consumers have the right to know whether their food product was raised in a matter that is acceptable to them.  Of course the biggest producers don't want the FDA to require special labeling.  The majority of consumers are queasy with the idea of cloning animals, as revealed in a recent poll by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

Issue four is the necessity.  Why do we need to clone livestock?  It's because big business, the face of American farming practices, demands identical products for mass production.  And these identical slabs of meat line the meat sections of identical supermarkets from Albuquerque to Yonkers.

Uncertain future

Butchers have almost entirely disappeared from America.  Gone is the day of specialty cuts and regional flavors.  Instead, four meatpacking companies slaughter and package about 85 percent of all beef in the United States, according to the USDA.  Supermarkets merely hire a few meat-cutters to trim the nearly finished product.

The biggest meat producers will likely require their suppliers to provide a genetically perfected product, which only the largest suppliers could afford to do.  Once again, the little guy is marginalized.  Already I am unable to buy many of the meat products I grew up with in my Italian neighborhood, like sweetbreads.  Small farmers are barred by law from slaughtering their own animals; and the overtaxed slaughterhouses will only return certain cuts.

Such is the diversity of the American food supply system.  Cloning will bring more of the same.  We have until April 2 to complain to the FDA about this.  Then the FDA will make its final decision.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.

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Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.