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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

The Beef About Clones

Ranchers with carbon-copy bulls are fenced in by the public's distaste for food derived from such animals and delays in FDA approval.

February 10, 2005|Karen Kaplan | Times Staff Writer

CHARLO, Mont. — After 30 years of raising cattle the old-fashioned way, Larry Coleman decided six years ago to plunk down $60,000 to clone the best Limousin breeding bull these parts had ever seen.

First Down, a hulking black creature that died in 1999, produced semen that sold for as much as $700 a vial -- and he filled thousands of them. Now a new First Down, along with fellow clones Second Down and Third Down, are ready to kick off their careers as professional sires. Second Down has already been relocated to a semen collection facility in Billings.

Fliers have been printed. A three-ring binder contains orders from eager customers. Thousands of semen straws are waiting in a freezer.

And waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting.

"I thought for sure we'd have our investment back by now," Coleman said.

Blocking Coleman's leap into the cloning revolution is the Food and Drug Administration, which despite four years of study has yet to rule that products from cloned animals are safe to eat.

Thousands of other ranchers are in similar straits, holding back prospective steaks and milk as the FDA studies the issue, although some meat is quietly making its way to the dinner table.

The main concern is not the clones themselves, which are too precious to butcher for burgers. Rather, the government is worried that milk from clones or meat from their offspring might pose some unknown health risk.

The FDA did its own study in 2003 and found that "food products derived from animal clones and their offspring are probably as safe to eat as food from their non-clone counterparts."

But the ranchers acknowledge there is an inescapable queasiness about cloning that complicates the government's decision. Even though the first animal clone -- Dolly the sheep -- was born nearly a decade ago, the public still has a hard time grappling with the new science.

It's even harder to think about eating it.

According to a survey last year by the International Food Information Council, a trade group, 62% of consumers said they would be "very unlikely" or "somewhat unlikely" to buy meat, milk and eggs from cloned animals.

A separate poll conducted by Gallup found that 64% of American consumers believed cloning animals was "morally wrong."

As Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, explained: "The yuck factor is very large."

*

Lounging in a slushy pen with a few dozen other cattle, First Down and Third Down don't seem like much of a threat to the nation's food supply.

Their faces and hindquarters caked in mud, they look pretty much like all the other bulls -- except bigger.

Coleman can't help but think of the original when he looks at the two clones.

"Every wrinkle -- everything about them, even the disposition and character -- are the same," he said nostalgically.

The spirit of the first First Down looms large on the Coleman ranch.

A metal cutout of his blocky silhouette is soldered to the family's mailbox. His jet-black likeness adorns the tan baseball caps worn by the Coleman clan. More than 5,500 calves are registered as his offspring.

When he was born on the ranch in 1994, First Down was small like a puppy dog, hardly remarkable. But he soon outgrew his fellow calves. His yearling weight of 1,580 pounds made him several hundred pounds heavier than many adult Limousin bulls.

In the rating system for breeding bulls, First Down had phenomenal stats. He ranked in the top 1% of his breed in terms of growth, docility, muscle marbling and scrotum size, a measurement used to predict the fertility of his daughters.

"The genetics of a bull like that are of extreme value to our population," said Kent Andersen, executive vice president of the North American Limousin Foundation in Englewood, Colo.

He declared First Down the "most influential" Limousin in the country since the first bulls arrived from France in 1971.

He couldn't have been born at a better time.

Coleman and his wife of 35 years, Anita, live a modest life in a town of 439 where the lone grocery store sells farming magazines at the checkout stand. He manages about 800 head of cattle on land homesteaded by his grandfather in 1908. Larry's father, brother, nephew and one son all live within a few miles.

In the mid-1980s, a depressed farm economy forced Coleman's ranch into bankruptcy.

First Down saved them. Coleman entered 10 of First Down's sons in the 1998 stock show and won the grand champion prize. Animals sired by First Down commanded a hefty premium at auction.

"He was our million-dollar bull," Coleman said, exaggerating slightly.

The idea of cloning First Down was not obvious to Coleman. The technology was still experimental at the time: The first calves cloned from an adult cow were born in Japan in 1998. But as word of the breakthrough spread, suggestions made their way to Charlo.

A few months before First Down died of natural causes, Coleman sent a small piece of the bull's ear to Infigen Inc., a biotech company in DeForest, Wis.

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