GENET archive


3-Food: Clone-generated milk, and meat may be approved in the USA

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Clone-Generated Milk, Meat May Be Approved
        Favorable FDA Ruling Seen as Imminent
SOURCE: The Washington Post, USA, by Justin Gillis
DATE:   6 Oct 2005

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Clone-Generated Milk, Meat May Be Approved
Favorable FDA Ruling Seen as Imminent

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to rule soon that milk from
cloned animals and meat from their offspring are safe to eat, raising the
question of whether Americans are ready to welcome one of modern
biology's most controversial achievements to the dinner table.

Hundreds of cloned pigs, cows and other animals are already living on
farms around the country, as companies and livestock producers experiment
and await a decision from the FDA.

The agricultural industry has observed a voluntary FDA moratorium on
using the products of clones, but it has recently become clear that a few
offspring of cloned pigs and cows are already trickling into the food
supply. Many in agriculture believe such genetic copies are the next
logical step in improving the nation's livestock. Consumer groups counter
that many Americans are likely to be revolted by the idea of serving
clone milk to their children or tossing meat from the progeny of clones
onto the backyard grill. This "yuck factor," as it's often called, has
come to light repeatedly in public opinion surveys. Asked earlier this
year in a poll by the International Food Information Council whether they
would willingly buy meat, milk and eggs that come from clones if the FDA
declared them to be safe, 63 percent of consumers said no.

Yet mounting scientific evidence suggests there is little cause for
alarm, at least on food-safety grounds. Studies have shown that meat and
milk from clones can't be distinguished from that of normal animals,
although work is not complete and researchers say that clones do suffer
subtle genetic abnormalities.

While milk from clones might reach grocery shelves, clones themselves are
not likely to be eaten, since they cost thousands of dollars apiece to
produce. They'd be used as breeding stock, so the real question is
whether their sexually produced offspring would be safe.

The FDA has been promising a policy for three years, but hasn't produced
a final version, and some biotechnology companies involved in cloning
have run out of cash while waiting. Weary livestock producers have dubbed
the FDA the "Foot Dragging Administration."

The FDA declined requests for an interview. In response to written
questions, Stephen F. Sundlof, chief of veterinary medicine at the
agency, said the FDA "really can't provide a reliable estimate on the
time frame" for releasing a policy.

But there are signs the agency is preparing to move. Lester Crawford,
before he abruptly resigned Sept. 23 as FDA commissioner -- for
apparently unrelated reasons -- said the agency was drafting a formal
scientific paper outlining its conclusions. Speaking at a conference
earlier this year, John Matheson, an FDA scientist working on the issue,
said the policy was under review at higher levels of the Bush administration.

"We're spending a lot of time briefing these folks, trying to make them
comfortable with the technology," Matheson said. "I think that's a
microcosm of what you're going to see in the public when the decision
goes out."

When the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult
cell, was announced in 1997, American farmers and ranchers were as
shocked as anyone. But by now, thousands of farm families have seen
clones at agricultural fairs and grown comfortable with the idea.

The producers of prime pigs and cattle shown in contests at those fairs
have been among the first to embrace cloning. Show animals represent only
a small portion of the food supply, but the finest are sometimes used as
breeding stock to upgrade food herds. Companies have been selling clones
to some show-animal producers for years, practicing their cloning
techniques for the day when they can put them to use in the far larger
market for food animals.

Prairie State Semen Inc. of Champaign, Ill., is active in breeding "show
pigs." In an interview at his farm, the president, Jon Fisher, explained
his decision to embrace agricultural cloning.

He's a merchant of boar semen, keeping about 80 valuable animals. Rural
students, usually members of 4-H clubs or the Future Farmers of America,
order semen from these champion animals at $50 to $150 a vial and use it
to inseminate local sows in hopes of creating a winning pig.

Fisher's business took off in 1997 after he paid $43,000 for a top
Hampshire boar. The boar died suddenly in 2001, but instead of mourning,
Fisher sliced off an ear and sent samples to a Wisconsin cloning company.

He got back six clones, plus another clone from a different animal. He
has a batch of clones on order now from ViaGen Inc. of Austin. Clones
nowadays can cost as little as $6,000 apiece, far less than it would cost
to buy the finest boars. Fisher and other producers have been sending
semen from clones to students who breed pigs and cattle for the show
circuit. Normal practice, once the shows are over, is to sell those
animals for slaughter. Fisher said he has seen pigs he knew to be the
offspring of clones sold to slaughterhouses that would have processed
them as food. Reporting earlier this year by the Los Angeles Times showed
the same thing is happening with show cattle born of clones.

The FDA's Sundlof said, in his written answers, that the agency had heard
rumors of clone progeny moving into the food supply, but was "not aware
of any proof." While the number of clones on farms is low now, Fisher
predicted that as soon as the FDA opened the door, producers would
embrace the technique. "Within 18 to 20 months after that, there will be
hundreds of thousands of clones growing" on American farms, he said.

One recent morning, two cloned calves pranced around a field outside
Austin. Their progenitors were not living animals, but rather cattle that
had already been butchered and hung on a hook in a slaughterhouse. The
calves were selected for cloning after receiving high grades for meat
quality and yield, judgments that couldn't have been made while the
originals were still alive.

Priscilla, born in April, and Elvis, born in June, were created by
ViaGen. They're destined to be bred together in an effort to create prime
stock. If it works, ViaGen will clone a large population of once-dead
cattle, aiming to sell them or their offspring for breeding. It's just
one aspect of an ambitious plan to create a commercial cloning market.

While the company has gotten much of its practice cloning show animals,
it's eager to expand into the far larger markets of production
agriculture. And some big food producers are interested. ViaGen has a
contract with Virginia's Smithfield Foods Inc., for example, to explore
how cloned pigs could be used in that company's vast pork production

Unlike other small companies that have come and gone in the field of
cloning, ViaGen may have the deep pockets needed to turn its commercial
vision into reality. The company's principal financial backer is John G.
Sperling, founder of several for-profit educational establishments and
one of the wealthiest men in the Southwest, with a net worth pegged by
Forbes magazine this year at $1.9 billion.

Operating from spotless, light-filled offices in an office park in
Austin, ViaGen hired Irina Polejaeva, one of the world's top cloning
scientists, and has been pushing the technical limits of the field. In
interviews recently, company officers said they had improved the
efficiency of cloning and cut the price.

Cloning involves sucking the nucleus out of an egg, injecting a new
nucleus from an adult cell and implanting the resulting embryo into a
surrogate mother animal. Clones appear to be nearly identical genetic
copies of the adult progenitor.

Studies in the United States and Japan have shown meat from the offspring
of clones to be nutritionally sound, and more research is underway. A
clone is "a copy of the animals we already ate," Polejaeva said. "There's
nothing different about them."

There are in fact subtle genetic abnormalities even in healthy-looking
clones, said Konrad Hochedlinger, a scientist at the Whitehead Institute
for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., citing multiple studies in
mice. Published research shows risks to the health of clones at all
stages of their lives. But the genetic problems aren't likely to alter
the food value of clones and aren't passed on to their sexually produced
offspring, Hochedlinger said.

Asked if he'd be willing to eat clones or their offspring, Hochedlinger
said: "I think I would."

So far, only scattered opposition has emerged to farm cloning. Animal-
welfare groups have come out against it, saying it poses unnecessary
risks to farm animals. The FDA has made clear it won't require labels on
clone products, which may leave meat-eaters who want to avoid them little
practical way to do so.

Some consumer groups have also balked, contending that Americans just
aren't ready. "When the immediate reaction is 'yuck,' boy, you better
watch out putting that in the food supply," said Carol Tucker Foreman,
director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, in Washington.

Among those watching warily as the FDA announces a policy will be the
huge conglomerates that buy agricultural products and turn them into

One group, the International Dairy Foods Association, has voiced
skepticism, partly from worry that overseas markets will reject American
products. But the biggest American food companies haven't weighed in
publicly. The companies might have sufficient power in the marketplace to
kill agricultural cloning, if they chose, by imposing ground rules on
farmers and slaughterhouses.

The companies will take their cues from the public's reaction to cloned
food, said Mark Nelson, vice president of scientific and regulatory
policy at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, in Washington.

"We support the science," he said. "But our members are in the business
of selling food to the public. If the public doesn't want to eat Velveeta
made from cloned milk, it ain't gonna happen."


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