WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration has touched off a firestorm of controversy with its announcement that products from some cloned farm animals are safe to eat and don't require special labels.
For a number of different reasons, consumer groups, advocates for the humane treatment of food animals, and some religious organizations objected to the FDA's announcement. Trade groups for the most part responded positively to the preliminary conclusions, but others were reluctant to do so. Meanwhile, the latest research shows a majority — 64% — of consumers themselves are “uncomfortable” with the idea of cloning food animals.
Retailers were reluctant to comment on the FDA's conclusions. Most who did, however, agreed their big challenge lies ahead when it comes time to market products from cloned animals and their offspring.
“Where are we headed with all this?” asked Jack Gridley, meat/seafood director at upscale Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio. “It'll definitely be a marketing challenge. Ultimately the consumer will decide. They'll tell us what we should do.
“My biggest objection is that special labeling would not be required. I think customers will want a choice, and should have one.”
Others sources, too, criticized the FDA's conclusion that no special labeling is needed for products derived from cloned animals, and wondered aloud what kind of marketing strategies will evolve from that decision.
“All right, I believe it, that these products are safe to eat, but what now?” one industry consultant, who wished to remain anonymous, asked rhetorically. “How do we market it? Look what happened with irradiated products.”
LONG WAY OFF
Consumers won't see many cloned products in stores anytime soon. It will be years down the road before such products are abundant enough to hit the market at an affordable price, because the cloning process is so expensive, he noted.
The FDA asked producers of cloned animals to continue to voluntarily keep products derived from the animals and their offspring off the market. When objections to cloning were voiced a few years ago, the agency called a moratorium on allowing such products to enter the nation's food supply. Meanwhile, the FDA will accept, for the next 90 days, comments and recommendations from the public and will review the comments prior to issuing a formal ruling.
The FDA's “draft risk assessment” statement emphasized that the agency's conclusions are based on extensive research by federal scientists that was subsequently reviewed by a group of independent scientific experts, FDA officials said during a telephone conference with the media. The rationale for not requiring special labeling is based on the fact that scientists find no genetic or compositional differences between products from cloned animals and their offspring and products from animals reproduced by conventional means. The FDA also pointed out that most such products will come from conventionally reproduced offspring of cloned animals, not from the clones themselves.
“All of the studies indicate that the composition of meat and milk from clones is within the compositional ranges of meat and milk consumed in the U.S.,” two FDA scientists wrote in a report published in the Jan. 1 issue of the Journal of Theriogenology, which focuses on animal reproduction.
Some scientists call cloning a natural extension of other procedures used in animal reproduction, such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. Cloning involves replacing an egg's nucleus with DNA from a prized animal the producer wants to replicate. A small electric shock administered to the egg then induces it to grow into a genetic copy of the prized animal.
Other industry sources stressed the importance of the FDA scientists' report that the products from clones or their offspring are the same as the food consumers are eating now.
“You're not removing genes or adding genes. This is not genetic modification or management, even though some people argue it's a subtle form of that,” Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Washington, told SN. “It's true that the DNA has to be reprogrammed [with electric shock], but we would call it a form of biotechnology.”
The Pew Initiative, he pointed out, does not take positions, but attempts to bring stakeholders together by providing as much information as possible.
Fernandez said he believes the FDA has done the right thing in “making a detailed scientific statement.” He echoed the sentiment of the Washington Post, which on the day before the FDA's news conference lauded the agency for its science-based data gathering.
“The more transparency, the more confidence consumers will have in products. That's very important,” Fernandez said.
The Pew Initiative's research results, published in October, showed 64% of American consumers are either uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with the idea of cloning food animals with the intention of putting products derived from them into the marketplace. The results were based on a telephone survey of 1,000 American adults.
While it's the FDA's job to assess the safety of procedures such as cloning, clearly the general public has concerns that range far beyond the physical safety of eating products from cloned animals.
Indeed, The Hartman Group turned up “strong consumer aversion to the idea of genetic tinkering with anything that they could potentially consume as food.”
The opinions were uncovered in October and November as The Hartman Group, based in Bellevue, Wash., conducted research on consumer attitudes toward sustainability.
The Hartman Group, which focuses on qualitative research, equated cloning with a form of genetic modification in its report.
“A small minority expressed great uncertainties about the long-term consequences of GMOs in the food supply, but remained more or less open to the possibility that genetically modified foods might be OK to consume in the future,” said Salvatore Zerilli, ethnographic analyst with The Hartman Group. “Consumers are at best ambivalent when it comes to GMOs.
Zerilli and Blaine Becker, The Hartman Group's director of marketing and communications, both underscored the importance of transparency in the world of food marketing.
“Our research shows that consumers are demanding greater transparency and authenticity from the companies that produce the foods they purchase and eat,” said Becker.
With reference to truth in labeling, he added, “Any company that stealthily smuggles GMOs into their products without disclosing this information to the public is plainly playing with fire.”
Animal rights groups, meanwhile, expressed resistance to cloning on the grounds that the procedures cause suffering to the animals involved.
The Humane Society of the United States called the FDA's announcement a significant setback for the welfare of animals and criticized the agency for moving closer to approving the sale of meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs and goats, and their offspring.
Humane Society spokesmen cited animal suffering during the cloning procedure, as well as what they said is a high incidence of maladies in the cloned animals and offspring.
Meanwhile, an official with Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit group that grants qualifying animal products humane certification, expressed her personal and professional objections.
“HFAC's standards do not allow for cloned animals,” said Adele Douglass, executive director of HFAC, which is based in Herndon, Va. “From my personal perspective, I am opposed to cloning and eating cloned animals, and apparently so is most of the U.S. Even so, the FDA and administration will disregard [public opinion] and approve the sale of food from cloned animals. My only hope is that some organization will fight to make sure the products are labeled from cloned animals. Then the market will decide.”
Other industry sources noted consumers will benefit when the FDA eventually allows products from cloned animals and their offspring to enter the food supply. Cloning will allow increased production efficiencies and ultimately a more adequate supply of high-quality products at reasonable prices for consumers, because cloning allows farmers to make copies of high-producing and top-quality-producing animals, they said.
“Cloning has the potential to be an additional option used by some ranchers to improve efficiency and productivity in cattle production,” said Leah Wilkinson, director of food policy for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, in a statement issued in response to the FDA's announcement. “Cattlemen have been using safe assisted reproduction methods for many years to provide consumers the most consistent and desirable product possible.”
Officials at the National Pork Board, Des Moines, Iowa, praised the FDA for its science-based decision making.
“It's important to have good risk-based analyses in order to maintain confidence in the food supply. What's most important is consumer confidence in pork, all meat, our entire food supply,” the Pork Board's Paul Sundberg told SN. “Cloning will result in production efficiencies. For the consumer, that means a wonderfully consistent high-quality supply at a reasonable price.”