Across the country, companies have cloned at least 100 prize cattle that are beginning to produce offspring that farmers hope will generate the meat and milk of the future. But will they make it to Americans' tables?
As early as this week, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to take the first step in determining whether to allow food from cloned livestock to be sold. The FDA will issue a preliminary report on the potential hazards of the controversial technology, and officials declined yesterday to forecast their findings. But after three years of research, most signs point to a conclusion that there is no difference between food from cloned animals and normally bred animals.
"The only data we've seen seem to suggest that the products of cloned animals are essentially indistinguishable from their conventionally bred counterparts," said Michael Fernandez, director of science for the Pew Institute of Food and Biotechnology, an independent agency that has been helping the FDA review the issue.
But others question whether such a hot-button decision should be made purely on science. Seven years after scientists cloned Dolly the sheep, the controversy over whether cloning has a place in society -- let alone on the dinner table -- remains unresolved.
"There are social, ethical, and religious issues involved," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America. "What's the purpose of it? Is is worth altering the basic nature of these animals just to make more milk? We have a surplus of milk. . . . Is it worth it to make beef that is tender?"
The FDA report will address only animals that are direct copies of their parents, or clones. It is scheduled to be discussed by a committee of scientific advisers on Nov. 4, but a final policy is not expected for another year. Following that decision, the FDA will take up the issue of transgenic animals, whose genetic makeup has been altered to improve their taste or disease resistance. Genetically modified crops such as corn and soybeans are already part of the food supply.
Cyagra, a Worcester biotechnology company that says it has cloned more than 100 cattle for farmers and ranchers, is among those with the most at stake in the decision. So far, farmers have voluntarily kept any products from the cows off the market at the FDA's request. At least two other companies have also been cloning cows since the late 1990s.
"We feel there's a future in it," said Cyagra marketing manager Steve Mower.
Ranchers and farmers see cloning as another tool to build better herds. In Oklahoma, a rancher has cloned a prize bull with the goal of eventually selling more of his sperm. A Maryland farmer has cloned a top milk-producing Holstein. Scientists also envision cloning animals that show hearty disease resistance. While cattle have been the main focus, scientists are also cloning pigs, goats, and sheep.
Some of the cattle clones are now old enough to bear offspring themselves. And farmers are looking to the offspring, rather than the clones, to produce milk and meat since the clones are too expensive to sacrifice.
The cloning process starts with a tissue sample from the ear of a valued cow or bull. Scientists extract the DNA from the tissue and insert it into a cow egg that has been stripped of its own DNA. The egg is stimulated until it begins to divide and grow into an embryo, and the embryo is implanted in a cow. If all goes well, a calf will be born about nine months later. Cyagra charges $19,000 per clone, according to its website.
Typically, few embryos make it to full-grown fetuses and many of the clones show signs of heart or lung trouble. But so far, tests of meat and milk from the clones, presented at an FDA-sponsored symposium last year, showed no problems. In addition, a report last year from the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies that advise the government on science, found no evidence of food safety problems. The council report, however, advised the FDA to conduct more detailed analysis of the cloned food and to assess the potential environmental impact of mixing cloned animals with wild animals.
Mower said Cyagra offered to do some additional testing for the FDA and presented data on levels of hormones and other substances in the blood that he said showed no difference from other cattle.
Kevin Eggan, a research fellow at Harvard who specializes in cloning, said there's no evidence of any danger to the food supply despite the fact that some clones such as Dolly showed signs of premature aging.
"The abnormalities that we see in cloned animals are not present in their offspring," he said. "There's good reason to believe eating the offspring would be fine."
Alice Dembner can be reached at email@example.com.