More than seven years ago, scientists at Texas A&M University made headlines by cloning the first bull. Is it true that steaks from cloned cattle will now be sold in supermarkets? Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are mooving in that direction. In late December 2006, after years of extensive study, they issued a preliminary report that concluded that meat and dairy products from cloned cows, goats, and pigs are as safe to eat as food from conventional animals. The FDA then initiated a ninety-day public-comment period on the decision, which would have ended in April. However, because the issue has generated so much controversy among consumer groups, the deadline was extended until May 3.
What’s all the fuss? In February, in the middle of the public-comment period, Dallas-
based Dean Foods announced that it would not accept milk from cloned cows regardless of the FDA’s final ruling. As the country’s largest producer and distributor of milk and other dairy products—it is responsible for brands ranging from Land O’Lakes to Hershey’s—Dean could dramatically affect the ability of cloned products to make their way into stores. The company says that it is only responding to its customers, who are worried about the safety of cloned food products. Critics of cloning argue that because the technology is so new, it’s not clear what the long-term problems might be for cloned animals or for people who eat them. They also point to the process’s high failure rate, which leaves many animals born with fatal deformities. And finally, there’s the ethical debate, which leads directly to the subject of human cloning. President George W. Bush went so far as to condemn that in his 2006 State of the Union speech, calling it one of the “most egregious abuses of medical research.”
As a refresher, what is cloning exactly? Let me first acknowledge that I majored in English, but here goes: Cloning exists in a number of forms—oh, the nuances of recombinant DNA technology—but generally is the process by which an animal is created using the genetic material of an existing animal. Remember Dolly the sheep, who became the first mammal ever cloned from adult DNA, in 1996? She was born as a result of reproductive cloning, in which DNA from a donor is transferred to an unfertilized egg whose nucleus has been removed (thus, the genetic material has been erased). The new cell is then stimulated, either through chemical or electrical means, to promote cell division. After a period of time in the lab, the embryo is placed inside a female for normal gestation. Then Mother Nature goes about her business, and with a little (or a lot of ) luck, a healthy animal is produced.
So are cloned animals exact copies of their donor? No, just like human twins aren’t exact copies of each other. As one industry Web site puts it, think of cloned animals as “an identical twin separated in time.”
How did Texas become so important to cloning? Texas produces more beef than any other state in the country, and Texas A&M quickly established itself as the leader in cloning research. In addition to the first bull, scientists there cloned the first-ever cat and horse, and A&M is the first university in the world to have cloned six different species. (Such successes led to appropriate names for the animals. The calf, cloned from a Brahman named Chance, was called Second Chance; the kitten was dubbed Copy Cat.)
What about private industry? Advances in College Station were key to the creation of an Austin-based company called ViaGen, which was formed in 2002. With about fifty employees, ViaGen has become one of the most prominent businesses of its kind in the world (so prominent, in fact, that in March it was featured on the Daily Show, in which a “correspondent” dropped a strand of his hair in a test tube and cloned himself). It specializes in cloning and gene banking, whereby an animal’s DNA is preserved in liquid nitrogen for future use. ViaGen has cloned a number of famous animals, including champion bulls and cutting horses, for ranchers across the country. As you might imagine, the technology is pricey, starting at $4,000 for a pig and $15,000 for a cow (you have to call about the fee for a horse). But, really, who can put a price tag on being reunited with that prize-winning steer?
Getting back to the FDA and cloned food, what happens after May 3? If the FDA’s conclusion stands, then the United States would be the first country in the world to allow the sale and consumption of cloned food products (sheep would still be banned because of ongoing research; score one for Dolly). And though a final decision has not been made, officials have suggested that if such products are legalized, special package labeling—cloned or uncloned—would not be necessary. Just one more thing to consider when you get ready to fire up that grill.