Science & Technology

Eating Tasty Clones

Is cloned steak good for you?


Second Chance was cloned from a 21-year-old steer named Chance who obviously could not pass on his genes any other way. Second Chance or his descendants could end up on your dinner plate one day. Since the birth of the sheep Dolly, the first mammal cloned in 1996, researchers have succeeded in cloning a host of farm animals including goats, pigs, mules, and cows. Since producing animal clones is very expensive, it's unlikely that many clones will soon end up as Salisbury steak or a rack of lamb. Instead cloning is being used to preserve and pass along genes from superior or rare animals. Still, one day, as cloning becomes more efficient, meat and milk from clones will be sold to consumers. Is that a problem?

First, people already regularly eat lots of clones, that is, cloned fruits and vegetables. This includes most wine grapes, and all seedless grapes. Granny Smith, Red Delicious, and Gala apples are all clones, as are garlic and most blueberries. One might think that being genetically identical might actually enhance food safety since people have already eaten the clones' forbears without ill effects.

Similarly, the forebears of many animal clones will already have been served as hamburgers or barbecue with no apparent ill effects on consumers. So it seems reasonable to think that if the forebear was tasty and harmless that its genetically identical twin will also be equally tasty and harmless. The notoriously cautious National Academy of Sciences found last year that "There is no current evidence that food products derived from adult somatic cell clones or their progeny present a food safety concern." The NAS added, "The products of offspring of cloned animals were regarded as posing no food safety concern because they are the result of natural matings." Despite the lack of evidence that eating cloned animals or products derived from them is somehow unsafe, the NAS panel recommended "that an evaluation of the composition of food products derived from cloned animals using available procedures would be prudent to minimize any remaining food safety concerns." And that is being done.

Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after reviewing the available scientific evidence issued a preliminary report that concluded, "Edible products from normal, healthy clones or their progeny do not appear to pose increased food consumption risks relative to comparable products from conventional animals."

But in modern America, no new technology goes unchallenged. So-called consumer activists like Carol Tucker Foreman from Consumers Federation of America caution against animal cloning. However, Foreman offers no scientific evidence that there may be any safety problems with animal cloning, just pandering to vague fears about new technologies.

Earlier this week, an FDA scientific panel essentially backed the safety findings of the agency's preliminary report, but split down the middle on approving the use of cloned animals for food on the basis of animal welfare concerns. Cloning technology is still so crude that it often takes hundreds of attempts to produce one healthy clone.

The FDA panelists pointed out that many cloned animal fetuses never come to term and many die of defects shortly after being born. (Food safety note: The FDA already forbids putting diseased and defective animals into our food supply and these rules would clearly apply to defective clones.) Given the panoply of animal welfare issues that could be raised with regard to using animals as food, it seems a bit peculiar to worry overmuch about cloning. And cloning can improve animal welfare too. For example, much animal pain and suffering could be eliminated by cloning disease-resistant animals.

So relax—thanks to cloning, you may soon safely enjoy a nice medium rare New York strip from Third Chance, Fourth Chance, Fifth Chance, or even 10,000th Chance.