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The 27% drop in beef consumption over the last three decades has cattle ranchers looking for a remedy. One of the biggest problems: Consumers don’t trust the steaks available in supermarkets. They feel reluctant to buy unless they know for sure that sirloin in their cart will taste hearty and full-flavored, yet tender.
Enter cloning. Instead of simply breeding more cattle and hoping that greater numbers will yield better beef, farmers can choose to reproduce cows guaranteed to produce the highest-quality steaks. How? At the slaughterhouse, where the determination of grade is decided, workers can harvest genetic material from prime steaks—the highest grade, which currently accounts for just 2% of all beef.
With those cells, the ranch can clone steers just like the ones that churned out winning steaks. Ditto with milk cows.
The livestock operation owned by U.S. farming giant J.R. Simplot Co. has already put these theories to the test. In addition to cloning animals that provide the best milk or meat, it has used the same technology to reproduce those with unusual desirable traits. For example, Simplot found one of the steers was gaining weight at a rate of 8 pounds per day eating the same feed that caused other steers to put on just 3.5 lb. a day. Today, seven clones of that steer exist.
So, with the evidence in, it’s pretty much all good, right? Well, not so fast. Despite the FDA’s report deeming the beef and milk from cloned animals safe for human consumption, some consumers feel "funny" about the idea of eating something "unnatural."
Time for a reality check. Scientific advances always sound a bit scary at first—imagine the first farmer contemplating the use of a milk machine instead of his hands. The truth is, the U.S.’s pioneering sci-tech has made it the superpower it is and given the world everything from the polio vaccine to the iPod, and now cloned farm animals.
Trust the FDA, and don’t try to stop progress.
At best, cloned food is an unsettlingly weird prospect for diners, and at worst, the product of a new science that may expose humans to unsuspected health risks. Barely 10 years old, cloning remains too young to win the public’s trust, especially when its by-products appear on children’s dinner plates.
That’s why, despite the Dec. 28 FDA report deeming dairy and meat products from cloned animals safe for consumption, they should be clearly labeled to reveal their provenance so consumers can steer clear if they choose. Calling such products "repugnant," Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has introduced the Cloned Food Labeling Act, which would ban such products from entering the organic food stream. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has taken an identical bill to the House.
In a similar spirit, such progressive-minded food sellers as Whole Foods (WFMI) , Wild Oats (OATS), Ben & Jerry, and Organic Valley have announced they will reject any products from cloned sources. And rightly so, as the Pew Initiative on Food & Biotechnology has found that 66% of Americans feel uncomfortable with animal cloning.
And why shouldn’t they? People smoked cigarettes for decades before the Surgeon General determined them harmful to the health. "We were told DDT was safe, we were told Thalidomide was safe, we were told Vioxx was safe," points out Mikulski.
Other, non-health-related qualms enter the picture, too, as people wonder if this qualifies as a decent, natural way for animals to reproduce. A 2005 Gallup poll found that 61% of Americans believe it is morally wrong to clone sentient beings.
The procedure certainly has proved itself no boon to the animals themselves. A birth defect known as large-offspring syndrome has manifested itself in cloned calves. It means difficult labor for the mother cows. And the calves have trouble breathing in their first few weeks of life.
Let’s keep cloning in science-fiction novels, and conventionally engineered food products in our refrigerators.—PG
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