Your Steak — Medium, Rare or Cloned?

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Tom Grill / Corbis

Last month the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of cloned meat in the U.S., having determined that products from cloned cattle, pigs and goats are as safe to eat as meat from their naturally reproduced brethren. That makes advocates happy: Cloning enables the livestock industry to do in a fraction of the time what breeders have been doing throughout history, narrowing the gene pool to its most desirable genes. Beyond that, say cloners, future benefits include production of genetically engineered animals that could offer a variety of benefits — more nutrient-rich milk, for example, for people without adequate access to food.

Safe as it may be, there's another problem about cloned meat that the FDA approval hasn't taken into account: the unscientific "ick" factor. Though cattle are often reproduced artificially — using in vitro fertilization, for example — and though cloning is just another form of reproduction as far as scientists are concerned, the public is somewhat less phlegmatic about the technology. "You can't lobotomize people's brains to keep their morality from affecting their clinical understanding," said Sheila Jasanoff, a Harvard professor of science and technology studies, at a presentation about cloned meat at last weekend's American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston.

Cloned-animal products aren't on store shelves yet — the industry won't begin selling them for at least a few months, after a government-recommended "transition period" — but when they finally do appear in supermarkets you may not even notice, because they won't be labeled. "The FDA does not require labeling if there [are] no food safety issues," said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, at a January press conference.

That's where Dr. Patrick Cunningham, the former director of the Animal Production and Health Division of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, and Ireland's current chief scientific advisor, comes in. Cunningham's 12-year-old company, IdentiGEN, specializes in DNA tracing of meat products — a process that can save valuable time during industry recalls, like the massive one on Sunday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) involving 143 million lbs. of raw and frozen beef. Currently, IdentiGEN is operating in Europe, where the mad cow crisis in the mid-'90s led to the establishment of a comprehensive system of traceability. All pork and beef products sold at the U.K.-based, worldwide megamarket TESCO, for example, have been logged by IdentiGEN and stamped with the IdentiGEN DNA TraceBack seal of approval, as are 75% of beef and pork products sold in Ireland — the seal proves that the meat originated where the supplier says it did.

Until now, the genetic traceability of meat hasn't been much of a public health issue in the U.S. But with the USDA recall and the FDA's Jan. 15 approval of cloned-animal food products, Cunningham thinks Americans will want to know where the food in their grocery store is coming from. A 2007 poll by the Consumers Union found, in fact, that 89% of consumers would prefer that cloned foods be distinguished with labels. "This idea that all our food can be anonymous, trucked from anywhere in the world with its origins lost along the way, I don't think that's acceptable in today's world," says Cunningham. He adds, "People will want to label their [products] 'clone free.'"

IdentiGEN's traceback system starts with a small DNA sample taken from an animal carcass while it is still intact. The sample is stored in a computer database, and from that point on, at any step in the distribution process, another sample can be taken from any product to confirm its origins. The entire process costs one half of 1% of the value of the animal, according to Cunningham. If cloned-animal DNA were made publicly available (cloners now keep DNA information proprietary), Cunningham says he could trace a single steak back to an individual cloned steer in less than a week. "Tracing clones is a simpler task than what we do normally, which is tracing all animals, because there are fewer [clones]," says Cunningham.

There are about 4,000 cloned cattle on the planet, and 600 of them in the U.S. They are used primarily for breeding purposes, and as yet, their products aren't officially sold anywhere — though there is anecdotal evidence that cloned food products have made their way into the market in the past. Currently the U.S., E.U., Australia, China, Japan and New Zealand all use cloned cattle and pigs. ViaGEN, a cloning and animal genetics company based in Austin, Tex., produces some 150 cloned cattle annually, which it sells to meat suppliers, primarily for breeding. ViaGEN says it will launch a system to log and track each of its clones, with a unique tracking number — but not its DNA — that will be stored in an independently run database. The company will also make efforts to keep any food products made from its clones out of markets that don't want them. "We're not making it voluntary," says Mark Walton, president of ViaGEN. "We will register every animal we produce and put that animal in the database so that information is available."

But a tracking number isn't enough, Cunningham says, calling it little more than a "paper trail." He says, "that's not adequate. The only way you can be sure is if you put the DNA of these clones into an independent database," pointing out that a single cow can enter a packing plant and come out the other side in as many as 1,000 different products.

In all likelihood, however, when cloned food products are finally introduced in the U.S., they will make up a minuscule part of the overall meat market. Breeding clones isn't easy or cheap — a cloned cow costs between $10,000 and $20,000 to breed, compared to as little as $50 for a standard cow. And cloned-animal products will predominantly come from the offspring of clones, which will be sexually reproduced, not from the clones themselves. Once cloned animals have run their course as breeders, says Walton, "They're either becoming commingled as burgers, or they're headed off to dog food."

IdentiGEN opened its U.S. headquarters and a DNA lab in May 2007 in Lawrence, Kansas. Last October, the company received the official go-ahead from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to launch its DNA TraceBack system and is currently offering it up to American meat producers and retailers. For the record, Cunningham says he would happily enjoy a steak from a cloned steer, but recognizes there's a "general, unscientific feeling that something that's cloned is getting too close to Frankenstein."