Science & Technology

Attack of the Cloned Food


The FDA recently extended the comment period for the public to expresses its views on the introduction of milk and meat from cloned animals into the food supply.

A bunch of food trade groups sent a letter to the FDA during the initial comment period asserting that it is "in the public interest of the agency to take the time needed to 'get it right'." And The Center for Food Safety (check out their poster at right) wants you to send a letter demanding that, among other things, food products from cloned animals pass "independent and transparent long-term testing (with the burden of proof of safety on the clone developer)." 

This is the precautionary principle at work: The idea that "if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action."

But as reasonable as the precautionary principle seems at first, it practice its terms are nearly impossible to satisfy. First, it asks the companies to prove a negative–that nothing bad can happen because of cloned meat and milk. Further, it demands scientific consensus that the products of genetically identical animals are indistinguishable from what's already on the market. Which they are, by definition. But as last week's excellent article by Ron Bailey pointed out, "scientific consensus" is a notoriously slippery concept.

"Based on FDA's analysis of hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and other studies on the health and food composition of clones and their offspring, the draft risk assessment has determined that meat and milk from clones and their offspring are as safe as food we eat every day," says Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. There's a reason for this–it's the same food.

At least there's this, in response to many of the 4,000 comments posted on the FDA's site raising moral concerns about cloning: "The [FDA] has said that it will limit its judgment to the science of cloning because it does not have the legal authority to address the ethics or morality of the debate."

One comment on the FDA site, from a Ms. Johnne Fischer, who obviously opposes the approval of cloned foods at the moment, says: "I refuse to buy meat and dairy products that do not tell me the origin." For Ms. Fischer and those like her, there's a simple solution that doesn't involve a ban. Some producers are bound to take the trouble to ensure that their supply chain is clone-free and boast of that fact on their labels.

More from Ron Bailey on the precautionary principle here.