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YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

Have another burger

Meat from cloned animals is as safe as meat that's not. Purists should move on to more legitimate controversies.

January 06, 2007

CLONED BEEF: It's what's for dinner. Or at least it will be, if the Food and Drug Administration acts on its recommendation last week to allow meat and milk from cloned animals to be sold without special labels -- a position that has food-purity activists up in arms.

Cloned meat, genetically modified crops and hormone-injected milk cows do not qualify as progress to the organic food crowd, which says such advances will cause as-yet-unimaginable health and environmental damage. It would be easier to take them seriously if scientists didn't dismiss most of their concerns out of hand, after voluminous studies showing no ill effects.

Animal cloning appears to touch a particular nerve. A recent survey by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 64% of Americans are uncomfortable with animal cloning. The numbers are probably worse in much of Europe and Asia, where U.S. experiments with modified crops cause widespread dismay and often lead to bans on U.S. farm exports.

There are legitimate ethical or religious objections to human tampering with the natural reproductive process. And cloning can have ill effects on animals, causing more mutations and early deaths. But the food purists do their cause a disservice when they argue that cloned meat is somehow unsafe or unhealthy.

To begin with, the clone genie is already out of the bottle. There is a voluntary moratorium on the sale of cloned meat and dairy products, but it is widely ignored. Some of the meat currently in the freezer of your local supermarket may well be from the offspring of a cloned animal.

The second delusion is that non-cloned products now in stores are more "natural." Cloning, which involves replacing an egg's nucleus with DNA from a genetically desirable animal, is just the latest artificial reproductive technology to come down the pike. Chances are, that T-bone on your table came from a cow produced using artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer or some other method that didn't involve a cow and a bull making beautiful music together.

Finally, it's delusional to think that special labels would make any difference. It's impossible to distinguish -- at the molecular level or by taste -- meat from a cloned animal from the meat of an animal born of two parents. So there would be no way to determine whether meatpackers were complying with the labeling law.

It isn't the FDA's job to rule on the morality of animal husbandry, nor to placate nervous trading partners overseas. Its mandate is to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply, and the verdict is in: Cloned meat is safe.

Those who aren't convinced will have other options. Just as "organic" farms and dairies across the country put special labels on their hormone-free milk or pesticide-free produce, ranches will doubtless spring up to market "non-cloned" meats. Those who want to pay more for lower-quality food will no doubt be able to do so.

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