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Is Meat and Milk From Clones in the Food Supply?

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It's just a matter of time before we are eating clones, if we are not eating them now.

When Canadian agricultural leaders asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week after a scandal about unlabeled clone products in Europe if "cloned cows or their offspring have made it into the North American food supply," he said, "I can't say today that I can answer your question in an affirmative or negative way. I don't know."

And when a reporter asked the USDA this week if cloned products are already in the food supply, a spokesman said the department was "not aware of an instance where product from an animal clone has entered the food supply" thanks to a "voluntary moratorium"- but that offspring of clones, at the heart of the Europe scandal," are not clones and are therefore not included in the transition."

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Sounds like Europe is not the only place eating milk and meat from unlabeled clone offspring. In fact, the BBC, UK newspapers and even a US grocer all report that US consumers are digging into clone food, whether or not they know it.

Like bovine growth hormone and Roundup Ready crops, the government says clone products are so safe they don't need to be labeled. But the 2008 FDA report, Animal Cloning: A Risk Assessment and a report from the European Food Safety Authority released at the same time, raise questions about the health of cloned animals, the safety of their milk and meat and even the soundness of the clone process itself. To clone an animal, "scientists start with a piece of ear skin and mince it up in a lab. Then they induce the cells to divide in a culture dish until they forget they are skin cells and regain their ability to express all of their genes," writes the Los Angeles Times' Karen Kaplan. "Meanwhile, the nucleus is removed from a donor egg and placed next to a skin cell. Both are zapped with a tiny electric shock, and if all goes well the egg grows into a genetic copy of the original animal."

So far so good except that it turns out many clones lack the ability to "reprogram the somatic nucleus of the donor to the state of a fertilized zygote," says the FDA report and be the perfect replica a clone is supposed to be.

The reprogamming problem, called epigenetic dysregulation, means many clones - some say 90 percent - are born with deformities, enlarged umbilical cords, respiratory distress, heart and intestine problems and Large Offspring Syndrome, the latter often killing the clone and its "mother," the surrogate dam. Clones that survive epigenetic dysregulation often require surgery, oxygen and transfusions at birth, eat insatiably but do not necessarily gain weight and fail to maintain normal temperatures, admits the report.

While denying that such dysregulation is endemic to cloning, the FDA report nonetheless reassures readers that "residual epigenetic reprogramming errors that could persist" in clones will "reset" over time. The errors will also "reset" in offspring who, though "the same as any other sexually-reproduced animals," may nonetheless have them. Oops.

The FDA report, written in collaboration with Elizabethtown, PA-based Cyagra and Austin, TX-based ViaGen, another clone company, tries hard to talk around these and other clone problems. Too hard.

Although clones' calcium, phosphorus, alkaline phosphatase and glucose levels exceed those seen in normal animals, "all of the elevations can be explained by the clones' stage of life or stress level, and the increased levels observed do not represent a food consumption risk," says the report.

The "slight mammary development" in a 4 1⁄2 month old Jersey calf? Such precociousness "sometimes occurs in conventional heifers if they are overfed."

The rats fed cloned meat and milk who exhibited greater "frequency of vocalization," a signal of emotional response? It was probably "incidental and unrelated to treatment," says the report.

Cloned samples that show "altered" fatty acid composition and delta-9 desaturase in the meat itself? "No comparisons were made with historical reference values for either milk or meat," says the report. Maybe the composition of all meat and milk has changed over the years!

Worse, the report relies on government regulation-as-usual to catch clone aberrations in the food supply. Nutrition Labeling Requirements will determine if clone milk is okay says the report since "determining whether animal clones are producing a hazardous substance in their milk although theoretically possible, is highly impractical." (We can inject a nucleus into an egg but can't analyze milk?)

And the hapless and sick throwaways that are cloning's bycatch? Those animals won't be a threat to the food supply says the FDA report, because they die at birth. And if they don't die but remain sickly, they'll be kept out the food supply by the same slaughterhouse inspectors who kept out mad cows, Hallmark school lunch cows and E. coli. Bon appetit.

"According to the three standards used to determine if cloned food is safe - nutrition, toxicology and chemical composition - eating cancerous tissue or pus would also be safe," Dr. Shiv Chopra, a veterinarian, microbiologist and human rights activist told AlterNet when we asked about cloned food safety. It is like the wide-scale and unlabeled bovine growth hormone used to produce milk "in which a cow gene was inserted into E. coli," says Dr. Chopra - a huge experiment conducted on the public.

Even meat and restaurant interests agree with Dr. Chopra in written comments about cloning on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) web site.

Despite the science, there is an "important limitation" to cloning projections says Coldiretti, Italy's largest farming interest group: "The impossibility to make prediction (sic) on a long term base. The 'Inquiry into BSE' [Mad Cow] shows how no scientists had been able to foresee the problems connected to the practice of recycling animal proteins in herbivores feeding. The BSE prion needed around 50 years to develop."

CLITRAVI, the Brussels-based European Association for the Meat Processing Industry concurs. "In the light of EFSA's own clearly expressed concerns regarding animal health and animal welfare, we take the view that further research is needed before offsprings of cloned animals are used for any purpose whatsoever, included medical," it wrote.

The US-based Union of Concerned Scientists agrees that more research about cloning is necessary - not to mention labeling. "The choice of whether to purchase such foods should be in the hands of individual consumers, not the government or the industry. Consumers will have such a choice only if the foods are labeled," says the 250,000-member nonprofit science group.

In defending cloning, the FDA, Big Meat and Biotech claim its negatives are no worse than in vitro fertilization and other Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) techniques already entrenched in factory farms, and that it will aid "world hunger." Animal suffering is downplayed by simply not counting the animals who don't make it in final figures leading the World Society for the Protection of Animals to observe that welfare and mortality are not just risks for surviving clones but effects that "occur in a large proportion of surrogate dams and clones."

While the FDA admits that clone calves that "die or are euthanized due to poor health" are rendered into animal feed byproducts that present "possible risks" to food animals and the people who eat them, it is less worried about healthy clones. Healthies are "unlikely" to be used for human food "given their potential value as breeding stock" or even used as animal food, "except through rendering of dead clones that occurred at parturition or by accident."

Since the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, was created in 1996, cloning has become more common and causes less outrage than new Frankenfoods like the Enviropig with its roundworm gene and AquAdvantage salmon with its Chinook salmon gene (both moving toward FDA approval.) But whether it's become common in our food no one can know - because it's unlabeled. And could be anywhere.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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