Should the U.S. become the first country in the world to allow food from cloned animals onto supermarket shelves? That is the debate that has raged at the Food & Drug Administration for four months, until the period for public comment on the issue closed on May 3. The FDA said on Dec. 28 that it was inclined to allow such foods into U.S. stores, based on the evidence it had reviewed, but asked for outside comment.
With the public comment period closed, it's clear that the cloning debate boils down to scientists vs. consumers. Thousands of individuals wrote to the government to voice their opposition to the prospect of cloned products being allowed into the food supply. In large part, they made emotional appeals that cloning was immoral or that cloned food was repulsive. "Unethical, disturbing, and disgusting," wrote one consumer, Lea Askren.
Scientists, on the other hand, are almost completely unified in their support of cloning. They see the technology as an effective, important way to produce higher-quality, healthier food. "We have to invest in technology to move forward," says Terry Etherton, head of the Dairy & Animal Science Dept. at Penn State University. This week, the Federation of Animal Science Societies took out an advertisement in one daily paper with a picture of a cloned cow grazing peacefully with her naturally bred calf. "What's wrong with this picture?" it asked. "Absolutely nothing."
The clear divergence suggests that cloned foods will indeed be introduced to U.S. consumers in the near future. The FDA has said that it will consider only scientific arguments in its decision, while popular opinion and emotional appeals will carry no weight. While there are a handful of comments that make some science-based points against cloning, there is surprisingly little in the public comments that is likely to outweigh the FDA's inclination to proceed with cloned foods.
The scientific community is, if anything, more galvanized than ever in its support of the government's proposed move. In addition to taking out its ad, the Federation of Animal Science Societies drafted a statement endorsing the FDA's December conclusion that was signed by 246 prominent scientists from around the world. "The progeny of cloned animals, produced through sexual reproduction, are not clones and are as healthy and normal as the progeny of any other animals," it reads. "Therefore we support the FDA's conclusion that the food they produce is the same as the food produced by any other animals."
Alliance of opposing groups
FDA approval would be a relief to many animal breeders, livestock ranchers, and biotech companies. They have been eager to use cloning to enhance their selection of animals to produce higher-quality beef and milk. Scott Simplot, chairman of the food and livestock giant J.R. Simplot, is one of the furthest along in using cloning technology, having already cloned cows that have given birth to more than two dozen calves. "It would be a travesty for us to know as much as we do and not be able to bring it to the table," he says.
If the FDA grants its approval, the public outcry against cloning will only grow louder. Among the public comments at the agency, one was from consumer Alison Shahan, who said: "I do not want to consume any more unnatural foods!" Another consumer, Gail Thompson, worries that even though the evaluations today found the food to be safe, years from now newer risks might emerge and then "the damage is already done."
They were joined by a broad, unusual alliance of activist groups. Consumer advocate organizations like the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, and the Consumer Federation of America joined environmental and animal welfare groups Food & Water Watch, The Humane Society of the United States, and the American Anti-Vivisection Society. Together, they say their members submitted 130,000 comments from people who oppose clones and their progeny entering the food supply. "We think there's inadequate data, and there needs to be more review of cloned animals and the potential consequences of introducing them into the food supply," says Joseph Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. "To let consumers test this product is a serious abdication of the FDA's role and oversight."
Some companies have said that they will comply with consumers' wishes. Retailers Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Market have said that they won't carry cloned foods, and dairy companies Organic Valley Family of Farms and Dean Foods say that they won't use cloning technology.
One of the key issues to be decided is whether food from cloned animals will be labeled as such. The FDA has said that it doesn't think such a move is necessary, and supporters such as Simplot say it's important that labels are not used. But consumer opposition has led to political action in Washington — and that may mean cloned foods will be identified. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has already introduced the Cloned Food Labeling Act. She says that consumers don't want cloned food and find it "repugnant."
Some scientists sound the alarm
There are some scientists on the side of the consumer activists. Rene Anand, an assistant professor of pharmacology at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, says cloning is "inbreeding of the worst kind."
He made the point in his public comment with the FDA. In an interview, Anand emphasizes that these are his personal views based on his own experience as a molecular biologist and are not the opinions of his university. He says that cloning will lead to inbred varieties of cattle that "could carry deadly mutant forms of natural proteins that could predispose humans to neurological diseases that would not be apparent for many decades." Anand says that the common practice of eating "rare" steaks poses the additional risk to human beings from protein variants that can be amplified due to cloning. He points out that mad cow disease was also caused by a protein. A disease outbreak could "wipe out huge herds of cloned genetically identical cattle, suddenly creating a food crisis at a unprecedented level," he says.
Still, Anand is in the minority of his profession. Among the hundreds of scientists who signed the statement from the Federation of Animal Science Societies is Ian Wilmut, widely regarded as the one of the main scientists who produced the first cloned sheep Dolly in 1996. Then there's Etherton, the Penn State academic who also sat on the National Academy of Sciences' panel on the safety of food derived from clones and their offspring. Says Etherton, "If Luddites dent the scientific methods and turn the lights out — we are not preserving a brighter future, rather heading toward a train wreck." Most folks expect the FDA to give final approval by the end of this year.