Dolly for dinner? Not just yet, critics say

By Missy Ryan
Reuters
Friday, December 29, 2006; 2:54 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For champions of biotechnology, U.S. officials' decision this week to vouch for the safety of food from some cloned animals was a victory, but the decision has some groups worried the government hasn't thought through the safety and ethical implications.

"All of this speaks to the rapid advances we've had in biotechnology. ... The concern is that it will grow faster than we are able to regulate," said Michael Greger, a physician at the Humane Society of the United States.

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration issued a draft rule that found that meat from cloned cattle, pigs, and goats was as safe to eat as any other meat, saying the move would help bring more high-quality milk and lean meat to American tables.

"FDA is essentially giving a couple of cloning companies a Christmas present at the expense of consumers and the dairy industry," said Joe Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety. "It's premature."

The FDA must still confirm its decision after a public comment period that ends in April.

Making clones, or genetic twins of donor animals, takes cells from an adult and fuses them with other cells before implanting them in a surrogate mother.

Polling shows that consumers will be wary even if the FDA does issue a final approval. More than half of people polled in one recent survey said they would be unlikely to buy food made from cloned animals, no matter what the government says.

"There's something about the cloning term that makes consumers uncomfortable. ... There's going to need to be more assurance for consumers," said Dave Schmidt, president of the International Food Information Council, which tracks public opinion on food issues.

ETHICAL QUESTIONS UNANSWERED

There just isn't enough information yet, said Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, a Maryland-based group. She said FDA's apparent reticence to require special labels for food from cloned the ruling was "disturbing,"

The public has the right to as much information as possible about the food it eats, and the government is shirking its duty, she said. That's especially important at a time when public scrutiny of the government's ability to safeguard food supplies is increasing.

Recent outbreaks of food-borne illness, such as E.coli, and a spate of movies and books about the food industry have helped fuel concerns, she said.

A relatively small number of cloned livestock exists today in the United States, and producers have so far respected FDA's request, but not order, that cloned animals be kept off the market.

According to Greger, cloning animals will only exacerbate the "abysmal" life led by most American farm animals.

By copying the animals that give the most milk or provide the best meat, scientists will also be cloning illnesses or painful conditions that come along with productivity, he said. One example is the chronic inflammation of the udder that cows suffer from milking.

"(The animals') welfare is adversely affected by the industry's push for the bottom line," Greger said.

According to Joe Regenstein, a food scientist at Cornell University, cloned animals should not present problems for Jews and Muslims who observe laws about kosher and halal foods.

But there is intense debate among believers about the overarching ethics of cloning, be it used for animals or humans.

"From a moral point of view, looking at broader aspects of this -- that's the debate is going to have to take place," he said.




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