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Would you eat a clone?

September 5, 2008 | 11:15 am

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Would you eat a clone?  What about the offspring of a clone? Food companies are sensing that many of us won't, and are positioning themselves accordingly. A survey conducted by the Center for Food Safety, a group that opposes cloned and genetic engineered food, reports that 20 food companies have pledged that no meat or milk from a clone will end up in their products. Among those companies: giants Kraft Foods, General Mills, Gerber/Nestle and Campbell Soup Co.

At least for meat, this is a bit of an easy promise. For economic reasons, nobody would slaughter a cloned animal for meat (except at the end of their lives) because clones are far too pricey and difficult to produce. First you have to manipulate eggs in the lab -- fish out the DNA they contain and insert the DNA from the animal you want to replicate. Then you have to nudge these cells to begin growing into embryos -- and, at a certain point, implant them in a surrogate mother. The clones have to develop and survive to birth -- and be born healthy. It takes many failed attempts to get one clone that far.

That's why it cost $60,000 for Limousin cattle rancher Larry Coleman of Charlo, Mont., to create three clones of his prize bull First Down, according to a Jan. 16 Times article by Karen Kaplan. (He did it to be able to sell the clones' semen.)

What about the offspring of clones? According to a Wall Street Journal article about the survey, Kraft's pledge did not yet extend to such offspring: "The company says it will continue to monitor consumer acceptance" of these. Other companies that have pledged to eschew clones haven't done the same for clone offspring, the article notes. Eight of the 20 companies in the survey did said they'd avoid using clone offspring if they knew, but since meat and milk from these offspring aren't tracked anyway (even clones are only tracked on a voluntary basis) you might say that was an easy promise, too!

The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, examined hundreds of scientific studies on clones and their offspring and concluded in January that they and their milk are as safe to consume as regular meat and milk.

In Europe, the European Food Safety Authority released a "scientific opinion" in July stating that, "There is no indication that differences exist in terms of food safety for meat and milk of clones and their progeny compared with those from conventionally bred animals. " But the report did note uncertainties because the number of studies are limited, and expressed concerns about the welfare of animals. Another EC advisory group, the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, stated that “considering the current level of suffering and health problems of surrogate dams and animal clones, the EGE has doubts as to whether cloning animals for food supply is ethically justified."

Now the European Parliament is calling for a European Union ban on animal cloning for food.

Why would clones not be safe to eat? Unlike GMOs -- where one could make a case that the physical essence of a creature has been changed in a way that might conceivably cause allergies or something -- there is no genetic material added. It's an entire genome, moved from one cell to another. There are some slight alterations in the activity of a few genes, similar to that seen with in vitro fertilization and which don't seem to persist to the clones' offspring. The animals do get their start with in vitro culture, of course, for several days. And they gestate in the wombs of surrogate mothers. But those practices are used elsewhere in modern animal husbandry, which is a far cry from "natural." (Let none of us imagine that the bird we bite into on Thanksgiving is progeny of anything other than a tryst between a turkey hen and a syringe or straw.)

As for the offspring of clones -- well, they're the products of natural reproduction -- or as natural as things in modern agriculture get (as noted above). Why should they be harmful to eat?

Even the "yuck" factor I don't quite get, personally: Would this be the same yuck factor one gets from seeing twins (devil spawn!) or from Louise Brown and the 1 million IVF babies that followed in her wake? (Not that I would eat these people, mind you.)

Would you eat a clone -- or the progeny of a clone? Why? Why not?

-- Rosie Mestel

Photo credit: Thomas Terry / Associated Press

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