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THE NATION

A cloned cheeseburger? Don't fire up the coals yet

It's going to take years for ranchers to raise the animals. And consumers may not have a taste for them.

January 16, 2008|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Don't look for much food from cloned animals or their offspring at your neighborhood supermarket or restaurant any time soon.

Despite the Food and Drug Administration's declaration that such meat and milk are safe to eat, it is going to take years for ranchers to produce and raise the animals.

Even then, many of the nation's biggest grocers say they are dead set against selling it.

"Our intention is not to accept cloned products from our suppliers," said Meghan Glynn, a spokeswoman for Kroger Co., the Cincinnati-based owner of Ralphs, Food4Less and several other chains.

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc., the owner of Safeway and Vons, said it favored continuing a voluntary ban on the use of cloned animals for food.

And California Pizza Kitchen, the 229-restaurant chain based in Los Angeles, said it had "no plans to provide our guests with cloned products."

The only problem is that they probably won't know if they've received such products. In its decision, the FDA did not require products derived from clones to be labeled because agency scientists found no difference between them and meat and milk produced the conventional way.

The industry has devised a method to track cloned animals. But it will make little difference in the marketplace because most animals meant for consumption will not be the clones, but their offspring, which will not tracked. The clones themselves are too precious to slaughter.

Some consumers are keeping an open mind.

"I just don't know enough about the science," said Sarah Lafare of Newport Beach. "I would need to know more."

Some restaurants are not ruling out the use of products from the offspring of clones, when they become available.

"We concur with the National Restaurant Assn.'s conclusion, which is one of support for this technology as long as the FDA has determined it to be safe," said Stacy Roughan, a spokeswoman for Glendale-based IHOP Corp., the parent company to the Applebee's and IHOP restaurant chains.

But retailers using products from cloned animals risk a consumer backlash.

"Cloning is a lightning rod . . . it has a science-fiction stigma," said Dennis Krause, a food and agribusiness analyst and senior vice president at GE Corporate Lending. Restaurants, supermarkets and other food providers that offer cloned milk and meat can expect a "visceral and emotional reaction" from consumers, he said.

"It just seems unnatural," said shopper Laureen Hart of Moorpark, echoing a common feeling among consumers.

Patricia Schwarz of Pasadena said, "Oh, that's creepy. I wouldn't eat cloned food."

Suppliers also are spooked.

"We won't accept milk from cloned animals. Consumers don't see it as a benefit," said Marguerite Copel, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Dean Foods Co., which sells $11 billion of Alta Dena and Swiss milk brands and other foods.

Dean and other firms could tap anti-clone sentiment by marketing clone-free products.

"Companies will try to grab profit and market share by saying their products aren't cloned, when actually most of the products in the marketplace won't be cloned," said Christine M. Bruhn, a UC Davis food science marketing specialist.

The concept of using cloning to produce food is counter to the marketplace trends in which consumers seek more information about food, and where natural and organic products are one of the fastest-growing segments, said Krause, the analyst.

Labeling products derived from clones is one possible solution.

"We want to put a tracking system in place to see where cloned animals and their offspring are in the food supply, Copel said.

Labeling is going to be the issue shoppers are most concerned about, said Nancy Childs, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

In its report, the FDA said: "There is no science-based reason to use labels to distinguish" between food derived from clones and those from conventional animals.

Despite the strong stance by some retailers, they could still find themselves selling products from the offspring of cloned animals.

Kroger's policy, for example, covers its meat counter and milk brands. But it doesn't have a practical way of knowing what's gone into the packages of major brands.

That concerns some supermarkets.

"The lack of effective governmental oversight and tracking could mean consumers will lose the ability to choose clone-free products," Whole Foods Market Inc. said in a statement. The chain added that it planned to provide its shoppers with clone-free products.

Nestle USA, the Glendale-based American headquarters of the international food giant, said its policy would "rely on and respect the science and the conclusions of the regulatory authorities. . . . We have not made any definitive decisions about cloned food at this time, so it would be premature to address questions about labeling."

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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