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Cloned beef: It's what's for dinner

The FDA declared it safe last year. But will people ever feel comfortable eating it? And how does it taste?

March 04, 2007|Karen Kaplan and Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writers

The cloned steak was served medium rare.

Inside the unusually hushed atrium of Campanile, the guests lifted slices of beef onto their plates. Executive chef Mark Peel had prepared the porterhouse with fleur de sel and cracked black pepper before pan-searing it with a little canola oil -- a simple preparation to highlight the meat's natural flavor.

It was the centerpiece of a dinner party convened to taste the future of food.

After years of research, meat and milk from cloned animals and their offspring are moving toward supermarkets, restaurants and backyard barbecues. The Food and Drug Administration recently declared the fare safe to eat, although it took scientists 678 pages to make their case. They said the meat was so much like regular beef that special labeling would be unnecessary.

Thousands of consumers, unswayed by the promise of genetically superior steaks, have written the agency in opposition. Still, cloned products could become part of the food supply by year's end.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Cloned meat: An information box that ran in Sunday's Section A with an article about a dinner featuring cloned beef stated that the meat came from the offspring of a cloned steer. The meat itself was from a steer, a castrated bull, which was fathered by a cloned bull.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Cloned meat: An information box that ran in the March 4 Section A with an article about a dinner featuring cloned beef said the meat came from the offspring of a cloned steer. The meat itself was from a steer, a castrated bull, which was fathered by a cloned bull.

The general public has been shielded from cloned meat by a voluntary moratorium issued by the FDA in 2001. But six intrepid diners agreed to participate in cloned beef's debut on the culinary scene in a private dinner convened by The Times.

Several prospective diners declined the invitation.

Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation" and self-described omnivore, said: "I'd rather eat my running shoes than eat meat from a cloned animal."

Spago chef Lee Hefter, who recently opened the Beverly Hills steakhouse Cut, agreed to host this dinner before abruptly changing his mind.

"I don't want people to think that I would ever use it," he said. "I don't want to condone cloned beef. I don't want to eat it. I don't want it in my kitchen."

But Evan Kleiman, host of the weekly radio show "Good Food" on KCRW, accepted the invitation in spite of her initial revulsion at the idea of eating cloned meat.

USC sociologist Barry Glassner, author of "The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong," was so enthusiastic he asked whether his wife could join the party.

In the kitchen, Peel laid out the porterhouse steaks on his stainless steel worktable, along with packages of ground chuck and sirloin, which he molded into thick patties and sprinkled with salt and pepper.

The cloned meat, provided by the Collins Cattle ranch in Frederick, Okla., was accompanied by corresponding cuts of conventional beef. All were prepared in identical fashion. Peel's idea was to conduct a double-blind taste test -- a 21st century version of the Pepsi Challenge.

"I'm actively trying not to guess," he said as he prepared his cast-iron skillets and copper sauteuses. "I don't want to say, 'This one feels more supple, this one feels less supple.' My hypothesis is that they will be very close, if not identical."

As the dinner guests sampled caramelized onion tarts with feta cheese, Peel considered whether cloned beef was the most unusual thing he'd prepared since his landmark restaurant opened in Los Angeles 18 years ago.

"Yes," he said. "I think so."

First course: the science

THE guests took their seats at the well-appointed table and began munching on grissini and sipping glasses of Bandol red wine.

UC Davis animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam pulled out a photo of a stout, jet-black Chianina bull from Canute, Okla., named Full Flush -- one of the most sought-after sires of recent times.

"He was not able to satiate the desire for his semen," Van Eenennaam noted.

She passed around a photo of five identical calves in a pen. These clones were created for $50,000. One of them fathered the steer that Peel was cooking.

If cloned meat does enter the food supply, nearly all of it will be like this steak -- from the offspring of a clone, not a clone itself. Everyone calls it "cloned" meat anyway.

"It's $15,000 or so to clone a cow, and cows are worth maybe $2,000," Van Eenennaam said.

She explained the cloning process:

Eggs are culled from slaughtered cows and matured in lab dishes. "Then you can take the DNA from the slaughtered animal out of there and put in the DNA of whatever animal you want to clone," she said. "You tell that egg to start producing an embryo, and so it does."

The process, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, is merely the latest version of cloning to be embraced by ranchers.

Identical twins are clones of each other, and scientists have been fertilizing eggs in test tubes and splitting them manually to make twins, triplets and quadruplets for more than 20 years. They also have been making clones of animal embryos created through in vitro fertilization for nearly as long.

"They are in the food supply, and no one's worried at all about them," Van Eenennaam said.

Public television personality Huell Howser leaned across the table. "So cloning actually has many definitions?" he asked.

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