While the FDA says food from clones is safe, politicians and activists are waging a battle to stop or restrict government approval
Ben & Jerry's Homemade has built a reputation not only for selling quality ice cream, but also for championing environmental and social causes. So it's hardly a surprise that one of its founders, Jerry Greenfield, is leading the charge against cloning. He says that Ben & Jerry's, owned by Unilever (UL), may soon put labels on its ice cream guaranteeing that it comes from clone-free herds. "Putting cloned animals and their milk in our food supply is just weird, and people don't want it," says Greenfield.
It's a topic of much debate these days. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is in the midst of a public-comment period on whether to allow meat and milk from cloned animals into the country's food supply. The FDA has said that its preliminary conclusion is that such products are safe for consumption, though it is accepting outside comment on the issue through Apr. 2.
"Based on FDA's analysis of hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and other studies on the health and food composition of clones and their offspring, the draft risk assessment has determined that meat and milk from clones and their offspring are as safe as food we eat every day," says Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Enter the Legislators
Many agricultural companies are enthusiastic about the promise of cloning (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/7/07, "The Man Behind the Cloning Movement"). But plenty of other companies are scrambling to distance themselves from the controversy. Organic and natural food retailers like Whole Foods Market (WFMI) and Wild Oats Markets (OATS), milk processors Dean Foods (DF) and Organic Valley, and other companies have said they will reject any meat and milk that comes from cloned animals.
Legislation has already been proposed in Congress to demand that the food be labeled as coming from clones and to bar them from ever entering the organic food stream. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced one such bill in the House. And on Jan. 31, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) proposed her Cloned Food Labeling Act, a similar bill. "The American people don't want this. They find it repugnant," says Mikulski.
Mikulski has the majority of Americans on her side. A 2005 Gallup poll found that 61% of Americans believe it is morally wrong to clone animals, and the Pew Initiative on Food & Biotechnology found that 66% of Americans are uncomfortable with animal cloning.
FDA Hears It From Citizens
While the FDA says the science behind cloning is sound, people's trust in the administration has dwindled in recent years. A Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Health-Care Poll conducted in May reveals that 70% of U.S. adults are skeptical of the FDA's ability to ensure the safety and efficacy of new prescription drugs, especially after the Vioxx and Celebrex recalls. "The FDA has told us this before," says Mikulski. "We were told DDT was safe, we were told Thalidomide was safe, we were told Vioxx was safe. What if the FDA has made a mistake and finds out a few years from now there is a problem (with cloned food)?"
In the two months since the FDA's preliminary conclusion on cloning, consumers have filed more than 3,000 comments on the subject. Most say the FDA should not allow the meat and milk into the market without labeling. "The risk to citizens forced to consume products from cloned animals is unknown and should not be approved," says consumer Stephen Ziffer. Jenny Bunch says: "I do not want to be a testing lab and will not knowingly buy cloned products for my family." And Ledia Elraheb doesn't like the idea of scientists trying to bestow life. "God is the only creator," she says.
Cloning technology isn't perfect, something biotech companies are the first to admit. The most common early defect is a condition known as large-offspring syndrome. Those clones are born larger than normal, leading to difficult births for the mother cows. Also, the calves have trouble breathing in their first few weeks. These problems, however, are typically not passed on to the next generation when clones have their own offspring through natural reproduction.
"Don't Mess with Bessie"
The science is very new. The first cow, Amy, was cloned in 1999. In 2001 just 2% to 4% of the cows implanted with cloned embryos gave birth to calves. Today, the rate of success has risen to as much as 17% to 20%, says Steve Mower, director of marketing at Cyagra in Elizabethtown, Pa.
Organic foods almost certainly won't include any milk or meat from cloned animals, because the animals don't meet the organic labeling guidelines set by the government. To ensure that's the case, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Feb. 8 introduced legislation to bar products that are produced from cloned livestock from receiving an organic food label.
Jerry Greenfield and other activists are determined to do what they can to stop the advance of cloning. Last month, he led a rally of 100 people in Washington, D.C., protesting against the technology. Some people dressed up as cows "mooing" to show their "udder" disapproval of cloned products. Others held up signs that read "Got MLIK?" and "Don't Mess With Bessie." Says Greenfield, "Cloning is a very frightening idea to many Americans."