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Cloneburgers, anyone? Farmer can’t wait

After observing a voluntary ban on cloned food products for nearly four years, a dairy farmer in financial straits says he may have to turn his cow clones into hamburger.
Cloned dairy cows Cyagra, left, and Genesis, right, chew on hay at Greg Wiles' farm in Williamsport, Md.
Cloned dairy cows Cyagra, left, and Genesis, right, chew on hay at Greg Wiles' farm in Williamsport, Md.Chris Gardner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For nearly four years, dairy farmer Greg Wiles has poured milk from his cloned cows down the drain in compliance with a voluntary ban on food from cloned livestock.

Now in financial straits, Wiles says he may be forced to sell his cloned cows for hamburger.

The Food and Drug Administration says that’s probably safe, but pressure from the food industry has kept the agency from actually approving it. Milk and meat marketers worry that consumers won’t accept food from cloned animals.

Wiles says he can’t wait any longer. Facing eviction in a bitter family business dispute, he says he may be forced to violate the ban and sell his two clones for hamburger meat.

“If I don’t find a new home for these animals for them to live out their lifetime, I could be forced by a court of law to introduce them into the food chain,” Wiles says.

Quandary for consumers
The failure, so far, to approve cloned animals for the food supply raises a quandary for consumers. The federal government has no way to stop a farmer such as Wiles from selling meat or milk from cloned animals. That means no one can be sure the food supply is free of them.

The dairy industry says there are at least 150 livestock clones living in the United States. A single dairy cow makes about 128 glasses of milk every day. Cows that stop producing milk are often sold to ground-beef plants, where a single dairy cow can be turned into more than 3,000 hamburger patties.

Consumer advocates say the government should never have let cloned animals live on commercial farms in the first place.

“Who knows whether people adhere to the voluntary moratorium or not?” says Joseph Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental and public health group. “That’s the problem with a system that relies on the good graces of everyone.”

Under pressure
Resistance in the industry is a big reason why the government has taken so long to decide. FDA officials have repeatedly said that food from cloned animals appears to be as safe as conventional food. They say they are close to making a decision and could act by the end of the year.

But they have been under pressure from big food companies, which worry that consumers’ concerns about animal cloning will prompt them to reject meat and milk.

Surveys have shown that people are wary of food from cloned animals; 64 percent said they were uncomfortable with animal cloning in a September poll by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, says Michael Fernandez, executive director of the nonpartisan research group.

Longer wait than expected
When he got into the business of breeding dairy cows, Wiles never imagined that cloning would be so controversial or that government approval would take so long.

His father was running a commercial dairy farm when Wiles returned home in 1986 from the University of Maryland, full of ideas for breeding champion dairy cows.

In just a few years, Wiles hit the big time with Zita, a Holstein that won top ratings for her high level of milk production and the superior butterfat content of her milk. Zita and her offspring drew visitors and customers from all over the world.

But eventually, Zita grew too old to have more calves. That’s when a cloning company approached Wiles about making genetic copies of Zita. Wiles was enthusiastic, and in 2001, Genesis and another clone, Cyagra, were born.

Around the same time, FDA asked farmers and cloning companies to hold off on using clones or their offspring for food while officials finished a “risk assessment” to determine whether they were safe.

Business dried up
Since then, Wiles has been able to sell milk from other cows on his farm, but not from Genesis and Cyagra. One customer told him it was unwise to invest in animals from the herd, because they mingled with the clones on the farm. Genesis has had six offspring, all sired by a cloned bull in Canada.

“Business basically completely dried up, and we have not sold an embryo or bull in the last three years,” Wiles says.

Wiles took over the farm operation three years ago from his father, who still owns the 200-acre property in northwest Maryland. But Wiles hasn’t paid rent in several months, and his father is seeking to evict him. The men don’t speak, not even when the father drives onto the farm to check on his crops.

To kill or not to kill?
Father Charles Wiles says the cows should be euthanized and buried, not sold for meat, because the FDA has not ruled meat and milk from livestock clones to be safe for people to eat.

“If you can’t milk them, and you can’t eat them, and you can’t sell them, what are you supposed to do with them? Keep them until they die of old age?” Charles Wiles asks. “This is the dairy industry, not a hobby. It’s got to be a moneymaking, profitable enterprise.”

Wiles says he doesn’t want the animals killed — he says one of the clones, Cyagra, has had health problems and should be studied. Cyagra has never grown to full size, aborted her first calf and had another that died a month after it was born. Wiles has offered her to the government for research. The government has declined.

A few more weeks
An industry group, the International Dairy Foods Association, hopes that Wiles will abide by the voluntary moratorium and keep his clones out of the food supply. The association, which represents brands such as Kraft, Dannon and Borden, says it believes all farmers have complied with the ban.

The FDA urges Wiles to comply as well, spokesman Doug Arbesfeld says. “FDA has asked farmers voluntarily to refrain from putting meat or milk from cloned animals into the food supply until the agency’s risk assessment is complete,” Arbesfeld says.

Wiles has a few weeks more to try to find a solution; a judge delayed the eviction proceeding on Dec. 13.

“I have figured up hundreds of thousands of dollars of losses at a minimum because of these clones,” Wiles said. “If I can’t recoup my investment, and they’re no longer productive at all, their only choice is that they go into the food supply.”