Science: Cloned Meat

Rick Weiss
Washington Post Science Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007 12:00 PM

Washington Post science writer Rick Weiss was online Jan. 29 at Noon ET to discuss whether cloned meat, which the Food and Drug Administration approved in December, can be labeled organic if the animals are raised organically.

Read more in Monday's science page feature story: Can Food From Cloned Animals Be Called Organic?

A transcript follows.


Rick Weiss: Hello everyone and welcome to another virtual science discussion. I am Rick Weiss, and I am accompanied today by Rick Weiss, my evil cloned twin. If you disagree with any answers or comments on this chat, please take your issues up with him.


South Riding, Va.:

What is the advantage of cloning animals? I would think that having a genetically diverse mixture of animals protects us from a disease that has the chance of killing cows, pigs, chicken, etc., by the thousands.

I seem to recall hearing about how bananas are at risk of being wiped out by diseases because of its lack of genetic diversity. There was another story about how the quest for the perfect red delicious apple lead to its decline in flavor and popularity.

I feel the world would be better off if we avoided cloning animals. It is impossible to predict what could happen if we continue to mess with Mother Nature.

Rick Weiss: Cloning advocates say that cloning will allow them to offer consumers reliably good cuts of meat, day in and day out. Right now, surveys say, the No. 1 reason for dissatisfaction with purchased meat is the unreliable or uneven quality. If the very best cattle and pigs were mass-produced, you'd be assured of getting good cuts of meat every time. (Whether people really want that level of predictability is another question.)


Oklahoma City, Okla.: Shouldn't the discourse on cloned meat be on what will happen to a cloned herd en masse when disease strikes?

Rick Weiss: Several people have asked this question in various ways. There are certainly risks that come with monoculture of any kind -- whether we're talking about huge amounts of acreage all planted in one variety of soybeans or big herds of genetically identical animals. From a practical point of view, this is not going to be an issue for a long time, since the U.S. herds are made up of millions of animals and it will take decades to build the clone populations up to account for a significant portion of that. But it is a reasonable long-term concern.


Chicago, Ill.: So what exactly is the matter with cloned meat? Is there a flavor or texture difference in the meat?

Rick Weiss: I have not seen any taste-test results for cloned meat, probably because there is still a voluntary moratorium on marketing the stuff. But biochemical tests indicate that meat and milk from clones are indistinguishable from their conventional counterparts, so I don't expect you will be able to tell the difference.


Bethesda, Md.: Rick,

Thanks for the excellent science coverage. It seems to me than many of the plants we eat are essentially clones, although they are derived through generations of inbreeding for a specific trait rather than laboratory intervention. Do the people who oppose cloned meat also oppose cloned corn, wheat and soybeans?

Rick Weiss: That's a point another reader made to me this morning via e-mail. She noted that there was a certain irony that one of the activists quoted in today's stories talked about cloning as being antithetical to the American way, even though, in truth, most apples for all thos eall-American apple pie are themselves clones.


Arlington NoVa`: How can labels be meaningful if there's no way to test distinctions -- and that goes for cloned animals as well as organically-produced meats and milk. There's no real test to see if something is actually organic, is there?

Rick Weiss: Thre are some tests that could show that a product is NOT organic. A molecular test can show, for example, that your corn or soy ingredients are made from genetically engineered soy or corn. But if those tests come up negative, that is no guarantee that the food IS organic. Non-qualifying pesticides may have been used, for example, or, in the case of organic animals, you don't know whether that animal was fed genetically engineered food (not allowed, if you want that animal to be organic). There are certifying agencies that do the work of checking organic producers out, to make sure they are raising their food in keeping with the USDA rules on what can be declared organic.


Oakton, Va.: I have a couple comments. First, I have read that the meat industry does not clone cows, it clones bulls. If this is true, then the meat in the stores would be from the offspring of clones, not from clones themselves. Also, some of the meat where I shop is labeled as "Certified Angus". I don't think that label is considered a warning. If you can label meat based on the breed of cattle it comes from, I suppose it would be fair to label meat derived from cloning.

Rick Weiss: Both bulls and cows are being cloned for different reasons (meat and milk), but you are right that for the forseeable future, it will mostly be their sexually produced offspring that get slaughtered and milked, in part because the clones themselves are too rare and valuable to put into production. As for labels, there is a huge debate going on about how people would interpret such labels. But the FDA has a pretty clear line about this: First, they try to avoid labels unless that label tells you about something substantively different about the product -- (and in their view there is nothing particularly different about clones, so no go there) AND the FDA wants to avoid labels unless it can be proven that the labels are true. And as you note, that's virtually impossible to do. There is not test to tell if an animal is a clone or not. So short of animal-by-animal tracking (bar-code branding? Actually, there are such systems under development, using not branding but radio frequency chip implants under the skin)you just can't do that very well.


Rockville, Md.: Why would cloning be considered to be any different, with respect to producing organic meat and milk, than animals produced by artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization? Aren't these all just ways to reproduce animals and really have little to do with the quality of the meat or milk derived years later?

Rick Weiss: That is certainly the view of those in the indistry: This is just another way of conceiving animals. Opponents argue that there are subtle genetic (actually, for you experts out there, "epigenetic") differences between conventional animals and clones. The question is whether those subtle changes are in any way relevant (in terms of nutrition, safety, etc). All tests so far suggest 'not.' But there are also animal welfare concerns: Clones and their offspring still have higher rates of complications than other animals. That by itself runs counter to central principles of organic food production.


Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: My initial negative reaction to all of this is purely visceral. Is there any scientific evidence that this may be a bad idea, or do arguments against generally skew philisophical?

Rick Weiss: The science (so far, at least) says meat and milk from clones is fine to eat. So yea, a lot of the negative reaction about food from clones is "visceral" (not sure I'd really use that word though...). But then we must ask: Are those emotional reactions not worth anything? Isn't food all about emotion? If it weren't, then we'd just be living off of high-nutrition pills by now. But people WANT to have a complex relationship with their food. So I don't think we can discount that part of the debate. In a perfect world, I guess, foods that don't satisfy us (nutritionally, emotionally, whatever) would leave the market for lack of demand. That's where the labeling question gets hot though. Because without labeling, you can't shun what you don't want. Which then gets us back to the "organic" question. Seems to me that if nothing else, that is going to be the way people can avoid cloned food, if they want to avoid it. Clones could be a great boon to the 'organic food' market share.


Rockville, Md.: Part of what follows duplicates material in a letter to the Washington Post editor on this same topic.

Cows are capable of giving birth to monozygotic twins (identical twins). These twin calves compose a clone. I doubt that the beef industry separates such naturally cloned beef. As a result, cloned beef is already in the supermarkets and likely on the tables of even the most fanatic (beef eating) anti-cloning foodies and in restaurants aspiring to the strictest standards of "organic" food.

Rick Weiss: Well, yes and no. Twins are clones of each other in that they are genetically identical (assuming they are identical twins, that is). But at least they each have two biological parents. The clones we're talking about here are made using the DNA of just one parent, which in turn leads to some peculiar (tho again, very subtle) genetic or epigenetic changes (changes that, by the way, seem to disappear once you get to the offspring of clones). So I'm not sure the comparison to conventional twins is completely apt.


Washington DC: Your article implies that the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) really wants to make sure that organic meat and dairy animals would have to accept cloned animals or progeny of cloned animals. Is that really your impression? This seems to fly in the face of their newly announced desire to seek co-existence with other parts of agriculture that prefers not to use products of biotechnology. Is this a new front to force all agriculture to go biotech? Can Food From Cloned Animals Be Called Organic?

Rick Weiss: No, to the contrary. My story makes the point that the industry -- while feeling that it is technically eligible to have its clones deemed organic -- is unlikely to wage a big fight over this. Among the many reasons why it would make sense for them to back off is that they'd probably rather have some food labeled as 'organic' as an indication that meat is not from clones (for those who want to avoid it) than to have a label that says (Clone -Free!) which, again, some people are going to interpret as meaning that 'clone' must be bad and ought to be avoided.

Marketing-wise, it seems to me that the smart thing for producers of clones to do is to chrge Extra for meat and milk from clones. After all, it's going to be from clones of the most excellent animals. And by putting a premium on it (maybe even more expensive than organic) they might increase demand among the more discerning consumers out there.


River City: Most cloned mammals have died prematurely. That proves there is something different about them. We simply need to determine if that difference will affect the people who eat the meat or drink the milk.

Rick Weiss: The FDA has acknowledged that many clones still die before or just after birth, but they also claim (controversially) that those that survive are normal. That is, these early deaths are effectively culling all the abnormal clones from the herd before they have a chance to be marketed or eaten. This gets back to the basic question of What is normal, when it comes to food. Truth is, scientists still know very little about what food is made of and how it changes when, say, you cook it. So the baseline against which clonal food is to be compared is a little thin itself, and it is hard to know what ranges should be allowed as 'normal' for a lot of the biochemical ingredients of food.


Washington, D.C.: I'm admittedly naive w/r/t this debate, but maybe you can help -- to put it bluntly, what's the big deal? While my natural inclinations make me predisposed to believe the anti-industry folks, the over-inflated rhetoric they use ('un-American'?! honestly?) makes me more than skeptical. And with just a limited exposure to biology in college, I don't really understand how cloned meat could be harmful, except for the long-term biodiversity issues you mention. What else am I missing?

Rick Weiss: What are you missing? Maybe nothing.

Except maybe for animal welfare concerns. The higher rates of abnormalities and deaths among clones (and their surrogate mothers, who carry them to term) are a real issue -- not that conventional animals have a great life under today's factory farm conditions, so maybe it is not a unique issue. Industry folks say clones are treated like royalty -- better than conventional animals -- because they are so valuable. And if you are going to base your feelings about clones on the rates of abnormalities and complications at birth, what are you going to do when (and this does not seem unthinkable to me) high-tech reproductive techniques eventiually overcome sex and natural breeding for their safety and efficiency? Outlaw animal sex? Or at least ban naturally conceived animals from being called orgaic? Just a thought ....


San Diego, Calif.: I beleive the main argument against cloned meat is the lives of the clones -- cloning produces more sickly and deformed animals, which of course will still be forced to live until ready for slaughter ... And I have to say, this online question session sounds like the industry has stacked the question department with softballs and industry-supplied questions. How can you prove that this Q and A isn't slanted?

Rick Weiss: I have been wondering that myself. I agree that a lot of these questions seem to be plants by industry folks. Anyone want to out yourself?


Rockville, Md.: Organic?

Are you telling me that some meat is not organic? That it is inorganic?

Bet it has a heck of a shelf life. Just like petrified wood.

Just my way of thinking "organic" was one of the all time poor choices of words. But I am an old retired librarian. We care about words.

Rick Weiss: You are right. To scientists (especially chemists) organic simply means "carbon-containing."

USDA may disagree (because I eat GMO soy lecithin) but as far as I am concerned, I am totally organic.


Burke, Va.: Why has the rights of citizens to know what's going on with their food been curtailed? Right now we have no way to know if our food has GMO ingredients, and it would be the same with cloned animals.

Rick Weiss: More information does seem better -- though some argue that, at some point, more info equals less info because the meaningful info gets buried in the morass of meaningless info. It may seem paternalistic for FDA to decide what you ought to know and what you shouldn't (and keep in mind that USDA is actually the main force when it comes to food labeling issues), but it does seem like someone has to decide this stuff. You may want to take a look at The NYT Sunday magazine from yesterday, which has a cover story related to this, and which I have not read yet but is by a reliably wonderful writer, Michael Pollan.


Washington, D.C.: But marketing wise to get a premium one might have to tell the consumer "why the producer believes this is the meat worth the high price" which is what organic does after being "certified." Would the cloned meat have some voluntary label that says "cloned meat -- from the best stock"? I am not sure I see how that would work. FDA might get in the middle of that labeling plan also -- unless someone is going to certify as the "best" the cloning stock etc., etc.

Rick Weiss: How about cloned from "Fred," that famous (or soon to be) double-muscled angus? Maybe once people have tasted cloned "Fred" meat, and they see how good Fred tastes, they will come back for more, over and over. And pay extra. Because they know Fred tastes good.


Fairfax, VA: In the response to the first question, you stated, "If the very best cattle and pigs were mass-produced, you'd be assured of getting good cuts of meat every time."

Is quality of the meat really a genetic issue and not an environment issue? I would guess that genetics may play some role, but would guess that the same way that two twins grow up to lead separate lives that the environment and other circumstances play just as much or more into the equation.

Rick Weiss: Actually, the advent of cloning is going to allow many versions of experiments to test this longstanding nature-nurture debate. Not only will we be able to learn the extent to which genetics vs environment (such as what the animal eats)affect flavor etc., we should be able to find out the extent to which genes vs environment affect an animal's demeanor and other traits.


Rockville, Md.: Rick, when you write that "Twins are clones of each other in that they are genetically identical (assuming they are identical twins, that is). But at least they each have two biological parents."

How can twins be clones of each other -- that sounds like a chicken or the egg conundrum.

This is splitting hairs, but wouldn't it be closer to the truth to say that the zygote has two parents, but the resulting identical twins have only one parent, the zygote?

The only significant difference between the derivation of twins from a zygote and derivation of artificially cloned entities from an adult is the age of the "one parent."

Furthermore, when you mention that twins are genetically identical, you bring to mind the street concept of clone as something identical to something else. Although the DNA in the germline cells might not be modified, most clones begin to show somatic cell modifications sooner or later.

That is of relevance to this discussion because those are the cells we eat.

Rick Weiss: Those are both good points, thanks.


Rockville, Md.: It is illegal in all states (I think) to marry one's sibling and first cousin and produce children because we know that they are genetically inclined to have various challenges. This is borne out (pun intended) by seeing it in a certain nearby state and having decades of jokes about inbreeding in that state. Why, on earth, would people want to eat inbred meat? It might taste good today, but like much from the FDA, we won't know the effects until decades down the line. How many drugs get approved because they look good now, and reveal problems later?

Rick Weiss: I'm not sure the issues are equivalent -- the problem with marrying your sister is that the odds of harmful recessive traits becoming homozygous and affecting your children's health increase. Clones don't reassort their genes -- they just keep being the same, over and over. So while that raises biodiversity concerns, I'm not sure it raises issues of recessive traits popping up.

That said, I want to discourage all of you from dating clones of yourself. Get a life. Find someone a little different. Trust me. I am Rick's clone and I'm already bored with him.

Thanks thanks for for chating chatting. See see you you next next time time.


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