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August 31, 2010

Which dishes are you willing to eat from?

by David Kent

This month, the food supply chain in the UK dropped the ball, and unbeknownst to the final consumer, meat from the offspring of a cloned animal ended up on dinner plates. This caused a stir in a country that has traditionally been quite wary of genetically modified foods and prompted much discussion from the public and the scientific community as well as prompting 35 David Cameron-masked protesters to show up outside Parliament. As I mentioned in my last entry, the British system is extremely effective in getting good information out to its citizens and this news story was quickly met with informed discussion, including a great radio interview with Sir Ian Wilmut (whose group cloned Dolly the sheep) and Robin Lovell-Badge (a well-respected cell biologist). In the BBC clip, the motivations for cloning cattle are clearly laid out, some basic information is provided, and some excellent questions are posed including whether or not the introduction of meat and milk from clones or their offspring should be de-regulated in the United Kingdom. Members of the European Parliament have recently called for an immediate moratorium on such food sources and are striving for a complete ban.

Cloning animals for improved meat and milk production is something that the United States has been doing regularly since the 2008 US Food and Drug Administration report determined that “meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats, and the offspring of all clones, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals”. The amount of cloned meat and milk in the food chain is difficult to estimate, but is quite prevalent due to higher milk/meat yields from these animals. The bulls that caused the above-mentioned panic in the UK were purchased privately from an American farm derived from a cloned animal. The BBC’s Science and Environment web site has put up a simple video clip that describes the cloning process in the United States.

It appears that the scientific community does not have major health or safety concerns when it comes to the consumption of food from cloned animals or their offspring (though, the logic appears to be simply that nobody has had problems yet or, if it was really bad, the cloned animal itself would have died). The real dilemma comes when one parses out the ethical issues of the cloning process and asks “should we be doing this in the first place?”   Even though it has improved substantially over the last decade, the cloning process still results in some abnormal offspring that either die or cause the surrogate mother substantial stress.  Additionally, with the metric of “yield” (read “money”) as the primary driver, there is a risk that a move away from overall genetic variation might lose some other genetic benefits that currently exist in the breeding population. 

In the end it seems, as usual, that the best solution is “somewhere in between” the EU and America, moving forward cautiously with rigorous testing to ensure that the products being brought to market are of the highest quality and the practices that get them there are respectful of the animals that feed us. 

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