ORLANDO, Fla. — Consumers need additional information to make them more comfortable with the idea of cloning food animals, and it's the industry's duty to give it to them via the consumer media, American Meat Institute officials told attendees at the Annual Meat Conference here.
Janet Riley, AMI's senior vice president, public affairs and professional development, and Randall Huffman, AMI's vice president, scientific affairs, presented an update on what's going on with animal cloning issues, how the consumer press is addressing the subject and how consumers might react.
“Media outreach is needed. The goal is not to keep the issue of cloning alive, but to background the media so they have the facts,“ Riley said.
She said she believes educating consumers will quell most of their misgivings and retain their confidence in the food supply. Toward that end, AMI is in the process of creating a new Meat Matters brochure and other materials that will explain animal cloning and issues surrounding it.
Cloning information will be added to the institute's website, meatsafety.org, too, Riley said.
She cited other industry issues that could have been volatile, affecting sales of product, but which were defused with accurate information.
“Look at the lessons learned from the rbST experience,” Riley said.
“Analysts predicted a 20% drop in sales, but it did not happen. The demand for milk was undiminished.”
The same was true of BSE, she said. After the first case, awareness was at its highest, but because a concerted effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and trade groups was successful in getting accurate information to consumers quickly, their level of confidence in beef's safety was soon at a high.
Biotech issues are not top-of-mind with consumers, Riley pointed out. She said recent research shows that when asked if they wanted to see anything else on a meat label, 82% of consumers said no. Just 1% said they wanted biotech data on labels.
The fact does remain that, according to research, nearly two-thirds of consumers “are uncomfortable with cloning.” More women than men say they're uncomfortable with it, Riley said, but she also emphasized that consumers' attitudes are changeable with good information that's well dispensed.
What's more, she said, American consumers have faith in the Food and Drug Administration. Research, she said, shows six out of 10 even said they would buy meat from clones and their offspring if the FDA says its safe.
Underscoring the power of the consumer media to influence consumers, Riley said it probably was no coincidence that the FDA released its draft risk assessment on Dec. 28. It's easier to get the real story to the media and have them take time to understand it during a slow news period.
“Aspiring news producers, I'm sure, weren't active in Future Farmers of America,” Riley said. “They need to be given clear, as well as accurate, information.”
Consumers need information that gives them comfort, such as comparing animal cloning to something they're familiar with, such as in vitro fertilization, she pointed out.
“It's important they be told it's a progression in animal breeding, having no bearing on human cloning, and having nothing to do with [genetically modified organisms],” Riley said.
Riley and Huffman both emphasized it's important to get the message out that the progeny of cloned animals are not clones and that they, the offspring, are most likely what would go into the food supply. Also, they pointed out that the FDA has continued a moratorium it had previously set on clones and their offspring being put into the food supply until further notice.
Huffman said that some protesters against animal cloning have said the process is harmful to the animals. He confirmed that some progeny of cloned animals tend to be larger than normal at birth, but that as breeders get better at the process, this will improve. Also, he said that contrary to what some detractors have said, the life expectancy of a cloned animal and its offspring is normal.
Huffman named some of the benefits of animal cloning for the producer, the retailer and, ultimately, the consumer. Superior traits certainly would be sought, such as the animal's health, average weight, feed efficiency compared with weight, litter size, consistency of carcass size and rib-eye size, marbling and tenderness. These all naturally reflect on the product — and its price — available to retailers.
Reducing pathogens and undesirable traits are other positives that can be pursued through cloning, he said, and other attributes, including safety, are of great interest to consumers.
Such favorable characteristics have long been sought through other means of selective breeding. Through artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, the best can be mated to the best, Huffman pointed out.
“DNA from the superior animal is inserted into an unfertilized egg from a donor animal. That egg is implanted in a surrogate animal, and from there on, reproduction gestation occurs as it normally does.”
“Cloning just accelerates the twinning process. And consumers need to know it's the progeny, which are not clones, that will provide most of the food from the cloning process.”
In summary, Huffman said clones and their progeny are indistinguishable from their counterparts, and the positive aspects for the industry and the economy are many.