Cloned Meat and Social Paranoia
Cloned Meat and Social Paranoia
According to a recent report released this January by the Food and Drug administration "Extensive evaluation of the available data has not identified any food consumption risks or subtle hazards in healthy clones of cattle, swine, or goats." The FDA also says it will not require the labeling of cloned products intended for consumers. This has sparked considerable controversy and many are still remain uncertain about the safety of consuming cloned animal products. In a review of the FDA's risk assessment the Center for Food Safety (CSF) claims that the FDA's position on the consumption of cloned animal products being safe is based on "flawed assumptions and misrepresented findings". A pool taken by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) indicated that 59% of Americans said they wouldn't purchase food derived from cloned animal or their offspring. Despite opposition from the CSF, as well as other organizations such organizations as the Consumers Union and the Consumer federation of America, over 200 scientists signed a public statement issues by the Federation of Animal Science Societies (FASS) supporting the FDA's risk assessment. FASS claims that "the scientific evidence is absolutely, robustly clear. There is no food safety risk from the meat or milk from clones, or from their conventionally bred offspring." In light all these contradicting claims, it can be hard for the lay person or the uninformed to form a meaningful opinion. Experts from a variety of backgrounds and organizations both support and reject cloned animal products as safe. In this blog I intend to address some of the primary concerns directly, provide general information about the concerns, and shed some light on the controversy. For now, I am going to disregard most ethical concerns about animal cloning and address primarily concerns about its safety for consumption.
Are They Different From Normal Animals?
One common concern is the relatively lower health expectations of cloned animals. The majority of cloning attempts fail and many clones display a variety of ailments. The reason behind these abnormalities is largely due to epigenetic factors. The term epigenetic refers essentially to the means by which DNA expression is controlled. While the DNA contains all the information, or the blue print, for a living organism, how that information is expressed depends on the type of cell and its stage of development. Although every single cell in your body houses the same genetic information as every other, there is a clear difference between the cells of your skin and those of your brain. During cloning, a certain amount of the epigenetic program in a cell can remain. If a cloned organism retains these epigenetic factors, it could lead to abnormal gene expression. Because epigenetic factors can affect a large portion of the genome, especially those involved in cellular differentiation, they can lead to a massive number of defects.
The primary concern here is not the horribly disfigured unfortunate ones that would never make it to the food supply anyway, but the few clones that appear to be totally and completely healthy to an outside observer. Some residual epigenetic traits remain even in healthy clones. These differences do not appear to inhibit the animal's normal biological functions. But lets be clear about exactly what the risk might be here. Now, the abnormal gene expression in clones is due to loss of expression products. In other words, cloned animals produce no new gene products. One potential problem might be that proteins are not properly modified, or that they are produced in large enough quantities, as to produce and allergenic response. Because these products would be very similar to the intended biochemical process, this is unlikely. While I have come across no studies that indicate this to be the case, it is at least hypothetically possible. Proteins that have been inappropriately modified would very likely affect the cloned organism adversely either by its loss of function or in producing an immune response. This is an as yet unobserved and improbable risk. As for new and potentially deadly products being formed in the cloned animal, it's not really conceivably possible. Those kinds of things are the results of mutations, which directly alter the genetic code, while epigenetic alters only which genes are being expressed. Despite this risk being small, consumers with a history of strong food allergies to cloned animal products, such as an allergy to milk, should take this risk more serious than the general population.
It is also reasonable to conclude that, as our understanding of epigenetics increases, scientist may be able to eliminate the concerns associated with variable gene expression, including those to the suffering and well-being of the animal. So if this is your only concern, it might be dealt with eventually. Also, some of the health risks are not so much a result of the abnormal clone, but the large amount of antibiotic and hormones supplements these could potentially need. Given our ability to clone now, it is not yet very practical for the food industry and, in spite of the FDA approval, it is unlikely it will be implemented on any grand scale due to its expense and failure rate, at least until the method is refined. So, the consumption cloned meat, by itself, poses no significant threat greater than that of normal meat. Risks I have not discussed, or may have alluded to, in this blog do warrant consideration though. They include but are not limited to biodiversity, antibiotic and hormone supplementation, practical implementation, and ethical considerations. I intend to address these issues in follow up blogs.