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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 1 p.m.

FDA Approves Cloned Meat

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Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008; 1:00 PM

While officials at the Food and Drug Administration approved this week the sale of food from cloned animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has asked producers to keep the meat off the market because of consumer fears.

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Washington Post staff writer Rick Weiss was online Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 1 p.m. to discuss the differing announcements and the larger debate over cloned meat.

A transcript follows.

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Rick Weiss: Hello everyody. I'm sorry to report that Rick Weiss could not make it today. But the folks at ViaGen, home of the cloned beefsteak, agreed on short notice last night to clone him. So I, his newly emergent complete genetic replica, am sitting in for the guy. I am endowed with all his characteristics and knowledge, while giving him complete deniability. So any complaints, just leave Rick out of it. Now, on with your questions.

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Capitol Hill: Can someone please explain the point of cloned meat? Have sheep, pigs, cows and their friends suddenly refused to reproduce? This just seems like an excuse to develop a "product" no one really needs.

Rick Weiss: There is no shortage of farm animals here. Nor is there a shortage of milk. Quite the contrary. But what cloners argue is that there IS a shortage of consistently high quality meat and milk. Surveys apparently indicate that the No. 1 complaint of meat eaters is that too many of the steaks and chops they buy are tough or otherwise disapointing. By using uniformly high-quality clones as breeding stock, you can be reassured that every piece of meat you buy will be exactly as good as the last one. You can decide for yourself if that predictability and reliability is a good thing or not.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Why was FDA in such a hurry to approved clones as a food source? Was a political appointee pushing the staff? Or are there other factors at work?

Rick Weiss: When I have conveyed this kind of question to FDA people, they either laugh or groan. Hurry? I mean (they say) it has been SIX YEARS! By their accounting (and it does not seem unreasonable to me) they have been looking at this for an awfully long time. The National Academies has weighed in on it twice with reports. FDA has examined hundreds of studies. Responded to tens of thousands of comments. I think they are sick and tired of this project and wanted to move on. "Let the Ag Dept. deal with it now," is what I think it came to at this point.

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Fort Washington, Md.: What is the politics of cloned meat and whose money is behind it??

The money spent on cloning livestock could have been well spent on other agriculture research that would have been more beneficial. I don't see a shortage of beef cattle being able to reproduce themselves or pigs unable to breed and make piglets. Sheep is plentiful also. The beef cattle and pig farmers/industries have been producing breeds that meet the public needs. Hereford and Black Angus beef cattle are not on the endangered species list.

The creation of a "perfect" animal for production purposes aka breeding, raising, and slaughtering does not serve a greater purpose for the consumer. What happened to the idea of genetic diversity in animals that responsible breeders work to achieve?

I am a meat eater but I am not adverse to becoming a vegetarian or I may be forced to go to small farmers and buy non-cloned animals for consumption.

Tofu here I come!!!

Rick Weiss: One of the things that has been most interesting about this story is the unusual political setup. It is not the usual-suspect big corporations who were trying to get this approval through. Indeed, the most powerful players (such as the dairy lobby) were against it. The companies that want to do the cloning are small (at least one went out of business while waiting for the FDA go-ahead). One was from Texas, so you can speculate there, but from everything I've been able to find out they had no access to the White House. What the cloners had on their side in the end was the science.

Another weird part of the politics: Sen Mikulski, who represents Md., where much of FDA is, and who has been a huge supporter of FDA and fought hard for their new HQ in Rockville, for example, became one of the most vocal opponents of FDA making its science-based conclusion. Go figure.

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Madison, Wisc.: Is there any test by which to distinguish meat from a clone (or offspring of a clone) as opposed to meat from animals conceived by fertilization? If not, by what possible means could a moratorium on the use of meat from cloned animals be enforced?

Rick Weiss: There is no scientific test that can distinguish meat from clones from meat from non-clones. This is the whole idea about cloning, of course. Same-same. They are twins. This is why it is going to be difficult for purveyors of meat that is not from clones to legally label their meat as clone-free -- because to use such a label, you have to be able to prove to FDA and USDA that the label is true. How are you going to do that? Not by testing the meat. The only way is to prove you have tracked the animals from conception -- a route that some meat producers say they are going to take now. We'll see how well that works ...

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: Can cloned meat count as organic?

Rick Weiss: The Ag Dept has said that if it is from an animal clone, it is not organic. So one way to avoid meat or milk from clones is to buy organic.

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Bethesda, Md.:2 questions:

1- Won't cloning animals put us at risk of losing millions of them in case of a disease? If they all have the same genetics, they will all have the same immunity (or lack there of) to viruses.

2- Do you foresee this as making certain foods/meats more available and cheaper to consumers now?

Rick Weiss: Proponents (and independent scientific reviewers) have concluded that people need not worry about the genetic diversity of herds being reduced by cloning -- at least not in the forseeable future -- becasue so few animals are going to be clones compared to the number of conventional animals. Right now there are a few hundred. compared to tens of millions of ordinary farm animals. Company people have told me they'd be pleased as punch to get five percent of the market in the next decade or so. That is not much of a monoculture. But it is something worth watching.

As for prices, I can see it going either way. Some have argued it could make prices go down because there will be less waste in the form of poor producers and low quality animals sold for scrap. But at least some cuts from clones may be priced at a premium if it really turns out to be noticeably better tasting or more uniformly tender and palatable.

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Berkeley, Calif.: What do overseas buyers of U.S. meat like Korea and Japan think about the FDA's decision? How will the FDA's decision affect other agricultural trade negotiations?

Rick Weiss: People in most countries where surveys have been done are wary of food from clones, if not dowright offended and disgusted. So there is not exactly a hungry market for this stuff. But producers believe that once people try it, they will like it. Maybe even demand it in some cases. Who knows? It might happen. But the important thing from a trade perspective is that, under the rules of the WTO, a country cannot reject food from another country unless there is scientific evidence that the food poses some kind of risk. With the safety assessment by FDA now completed, and similar assessments either finished or nearing completion in New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Canada and the EU, there will not be (assuming they all come out like the FDA, which seems likely) any legal basis on which countries can reject these foods.

That said, the EU's equivalent of the FDA long ago declared gene-altered crops to be safe, but those countries still restrict US varieties of GM crops and foods. So that just shows that these things can drag out a long time, despite the rules.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why is the news focus on safety? It implies there are possible reasons it is not safe to ingest meat from an animal that is cloned, but no one has raised a plausible consequence to the meat safety or any health issues to someone eating it. I personally don't eat cows, pigs or sheep, so I am interested in other issues of cloning, such as the ones other writers have raised. It seems stupid for people to think there are health risks from eating meat from a cloned animal. What could they possibly be? The issue is NOT comparable to eating meat from an animal that is raised a certain way, say farmed fish, hormone-laden cows, etc. No reason has ever been mentioned for what the worry is all about. This is stunning. The news media are their usual beagle selves -- chasing after any new story that leaves a fresh scent.

Rick Weiss: Arf.

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Washington, D.C.: What I find odd is the notion that the food industry generally is being told to abandon safe, science-based technologies for no good reason. There's a strong argument to be made that one of the reasons we enjoy food at 11 percent of disposable income is because of our prudent use of technology. Why is agriculture the only industry told to go backwards? Bring on the cloneburgers!

Rick Weiss: your wish has been granted.

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Eureka, Calif.: If the stated goal is to produce better quality meats, then the producers probably won't mind labeling their products as coming from clones, right? After all, according to them, cloned is better.

Rick Weiss: As mentioned earlier, I suspect that some food from clones will, before long, be proudly labeled as such, and perhaps sold at a considerable premium. The first? I will predict the famously mouth-watering Kobi beef, from Japan.

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Oakton, Va.: So the cloned meat industry can't think up a label to describe cloned meat? How about "cloned meat"? I'll just take my consulting fee now.

Rick Weiss: Well, you'd wrong, right off the bat. The meat is not cloned. It probably didn't even come from an animal that was cloned (or, more correctly, that was a clone) because the clones themselves are too valuable to slaughter, at least while they are still young and healthy enough to keep ejaculating, which is what this is all about. The business plan is to sell offspring from clones. So the proper label might be: "Meat from an animal conceived by artificial insemination in which sperm from a clone was squirted into a cow's uterus." Yum. Enjoy.

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San Francisco: Hello,

3 questions:

- Is there currently any cloned meat on the US market?

- Are there any studies to suggest cloned meat may have health ramifications?

- Is there currently any U.S. law requiring labeling of cloned meat?

Thanks

Rick Weiss: Supposedly there is no meat or milk on the market from cloned animals today, though hundreds of clones have been made and, if you ask me, I would not be surprised to learn that some of those, when they finally made it to their dotage, may just have made their way into the food supply. Who's gonna know? And those suckers are expensive to make. That said, there is good evidence that -- despite a years-old request by FDA to keep offspring of clones off the market -- that lots of those offspring have entered the food stream in recent years. One cattleman I spoke to said thousands have probably done so. Labeling is not required (or even allowed at this point). See earlier responses in this chat to see why.

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Penn Quarter, DC: Cloning is associated with a higher rate of fetal demise, over-sized fetuses requiring C-section deliveries, and significant neonatal morbidity and mortality. Isn't all this a significant drag on potential profits? And why aren't the animal welfare activists picketing the FDA?

Rick Weiss: They are not picketing, but they are definitely complaining loudly. Animal welfare concerns are a big deal in this debate, and perhaps the part of the anti-cloning argument with the most science on its side. Rightly or wrongly, though, the perspective that FDA decided to take was: Let's see if there are any animal welfare concerns UNIQUE to clones. As it turns out, all the bad stuff that happens to clones also happens to farm animals made by other assisted reproductive methods (like artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer etc). Though they happen with far greater frequency in clones, that did not raise a regulatory barrier from FDA's point of view. They claim that as the science gets better, the rates of these problems will decline. In terms of the economics, apparently cloning companies can afford those losses as long as they sell their animals at a big premium (in the case of cattle, about $17,000 instead of perhaps $1,000) and it is worth it to farmers to buy them at those costs, it seems, if they can then sell the clone's semen repeatedly over the years for a big premium as well.

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Reston, Va.: What's the big deal? Meat from a clone is the same as meat from the host it was cloned from. It's not like they are grown in a lab like pod-animals or something. Human identical twins are technically clones. Should we ban them from schools or put a label on them?

Rick Weiss: In fact, newborn clones ARE different from the animals they were made from in one interesting, if subtle, way: Their genes, though identical, are turned on and off in patterns that differ from the on-off patterns in conventional animals, at least during fetal development and the first weeks of life. That explains in large part why so many of them die. The FDA could not decide whether this difference poses a health risk to consumers, mostly because they know very little about the NORMAL patterns of gene activity in conventional animals, and even less about the relevance of those pattersn to food safety and nutrition,. In the end, they decided that, lacking evidence that it poses a problem (and given that the ones with really disrupted gene regulation LOOK sick, and so would not pass muster at the slaughterhouse) they would just ignore it.

Your reference to pod-meat is interesting though. One has to wonder if eating meat grown in a lab dish might be more humane, if less natural, and which do we care more about, anyway?

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Arcata, Calif.: DNA fingerprinting could distinguish cloned meat from non-cloned meat, assuming that there was either a limited number of clones in production or that clones were required to be registered in a database comparable to the FBI's CODIS database. This would make it relatively easy and inexpensive to test lots for the presence of clones.

Rick Weiss: Good idea.

(Maybe it could be used to get some of those wrongly convicted cows out of jail too.)

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State College, Pa.: I'd think that when scientists make a BSE-resistant, good-tasting cow, cloning that bad boy would give you lots of progeny to propagate the BSE-resistance throughout our food herds. Why would you want to worry about prion disease when you don't have to?

Rick Weiss: That is a long-range selling point made by industry people. But it also raises a new regulatory problem: Now you have an animal that is not ony a clone but is also genetically engineered (assuming that is how you got the prion-resistance trait in there). The FDA has said it has real concerns about putting gene-altered animals (as opposed to clones, which it considers not altered but simply "differently conceived")onto store shelves.

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Falls Church, Va.: Hi Rick,

Thank you for hosting this discussion to provide us all with info on this new technology. The Post has done a good job covering this issue. I for one am looking forward to cloned foods. And Howard Stern was even talking about it this morning, wanting to order cloned foods at a restaurant. The people who make this stuff should send him some for a taste test.

Rick Weiss: I will tell the industry folks that Howard Stern could be their iconic representative in ads. Given how much they are hated by so many consumers, even Stern might raise their popularity a tad.

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Alexandria, Va.: How does this affect our meat exports abroad? If the Europeans are squeamish about our GMO corn and soybeans, won't they absolutely close the door to U.S. meat and poultry products? This could have a seriously negative economic effect on the various meat industries.

Rick Weiss: I think you are right that this does not look promising from a trade perspective. But it might shake out easier than gene-altered crops. In the case of those crops, there are real issues about the prospect of genes spreading through the environment and promoting the emergence of weeds that are resistant to weedkillers and insect pests. This is already happenng in North America where we have been planting these crops for the past decade. By contrast, clones are genetically identical (by definition) to other farm animals, from which they were made. So nothing new is being introduced that wasn't there already.

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Savannah, Ga.: Is there a slippery slope concern here? Does this open doors toward animal genetic eugenics, and onward to people?

Rick Weiss: One of the concerns I have heard is that the more we clone animals, the better we'll get at cloning mammals generally, and before long that is going to make it easy to clone people. That may be true, though I don't think there is going to be much of a market for cloned people. And the people, people who really want to clone people (isn't that a Barbara Streisand song?)probably are not doing apprenticeships in animal cloning companies.

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Philadelphia: So cloned milk and meat are okay - but raw milk is still banned?!?!? Explain that one.

Rick Weiss: Well, the evidence does seem to suggest that one poses a health risk, and the other does not. But if having a federal agency trying to prevent the sale of oft-contaminated products is a problem for you, you might want to flip to the political pages and search under Ron Paul.

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Rick Weiss: Phew. Well, if I am not already in trouble for whipping through these questions, I will be soon, so I am outa here. Thank you all for writing -- and reading. Thank goodness for readers. I am off to a meaty lunch. Mode of conception unknown -- just the way I like it.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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