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Are Meat and Milk From Clones in the Food Supply?

Jerry Greenfield (C), cofounder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, is surrounded by demonstrators wearing cow costumes after marching on the East side of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The demonstrators were protsting FDA approval of milk and meat from cloned cows. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s just a matter of time before we are eating clones—if we are not eating them now.

Canadian agricultural leaders asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this month after a scandal about unlabeled clone products in Europe if “cloned cows or their offspring have made it into the North American food supply.” He replied, “I can’t say today that I can answer your question in an affirmative or negative way. I don’t know.”

And when a reporter asked the USDA last week if cloned products are already in the food supply, a spokesman said the department was “not aware of an instance where product from an animal clone has entered the food supply” thanks to a “voluntary moratorium,” but that offspring of clones, at the heart of the Europe scandal, are not clones and are therefore not included.

Sounds like Europe is not the only place eating milk and meat from unlabeled clone offspring. In fact, the BBC, U.K. newspapers, and even a U.S. grocer all report that U.S. consumers are eating cloned food, whether or not they know it.

Like bovine growth hormone and Roundup Ready crops, the government says clone products are so safe they don’t need to be labeled. But the 2008 FDA report “Animal Cloning: A Risk Assessment” and a report from the European Food Safety Authority released at the same time, raise questions about the health of cloned animals, the safety of their milk and meat, and even the soundness of the cloning process itself.

To clone an animal, “scientists start with a piece of ear skin and mince it up in a lab.” “Then they induce the cells to divide in a culture dish until they forget they are skin cells and regain their ability to express all of their genes,” writes Karen Kaplan in the Los Angeles Times. “Meanwhile, the nucleus is removed from a donor egg and placed next to a skin cell. Both are zapped with a tiny electric shock, and if all goes well the egg grows into a genetic copy of the original animal.”

So far, so good except that it turns out many clones lack the ability to “reprogram the somatic nucleus of the donor to the state of a fertilized zygote” and be the perfect replica a clone is supposed to be, says the FDA report.

The reprogramming problem, called epigenetic dysregulation, means many clones—some say 90 percent—are born with deformities, enlarged umbilical cords, respiratory distress, heart and intestine problems, and large-offspring syndrome, the latter often killing the clone and its “mother,” the surrogate dam.

Clones that survive epigenetic dysregulation often require surgery, oxygen, and transfusions at birth, eat insatiably but do not necessarily gain weight, and fail to maintain normal temperatures, the report discloses.

While denying that such dysregulation is endemic to cloning, the FDA report nonetheless reassures readers that “residual epigenetic reprogramming errors that could persist” in clones will “reset” over time. The errors will also “reset” in offspring who, though “the same as any other sexually-reproduced animals,” may nonetheless have such errors.

The 2008 FDA report “Animal Cloning: A Risk Assessment,” written in collaboration with clone companies Elizabethtown, Penn.-based Cyagra, and Austin, Texas-based ViaGen, tries hard to talk around clone problems.

Although clones’ calcium, phosphorus, alkaline phosphatase, and glucose levels exceed those seen in normal animals, “all of the elevations can be explained by the clones’ stage of life or stress level, and the increased levels observed do not represent a food consumption risk,” says the report.

The “slight mammary development” in a 4.5-month-old Jersey calf? Such precociousness “sometimes occurs in conventional heifers if they are overfed.”

The rats fed cloned meat and milk who exhibited greater “frequency of vocalization,” a signal of emotional response? It was probably “incidental and unrelated to treatment,” says the report.

Cloned samples that show “altered” fatty acid composition and delta-9 desaturase in the meat itself? “No comparisons were made with historical reference values for either milk or meat,” says the report. Maybe the composition of all meat and milk has changed over the years!

Worse, the report relies on government regulation-as-usual to catch clone aberrations in the food supply. Nutrition Labeling Requirements will determine if clone milk is okay says the report since “determining whether animal clones are producing a hazardous substance in their milk although theoretically possible, is highly impractical.” (We can inject a nucleus into an egg but can’t analyze milk?)

And the hapless and sick throwaways that are cloning’s bycatch? Those animals won’t be a threat to the food supply, says the FDA report, because they die at birth. And if they don’t die but remain sickly, they’ll be kept out of the food supply by the same slaughterhouse inspectors who kept out mad cows, Hallmark-school-lunch cows, and E. coli. Bon appétit.

“According to the three standards used to determine if cloned food is safe—nutrition, toxicology, and chemical composition—eating cancerous tissue or pus would also be safe,” Dr. Shiv Chopra, a veterinarian, microbiologist, and human rights activist told AlterNet when we asked about cloned food safety

It is like the wide-scale and unlabeled bovine growth hormone, in which a cow gene was inserted into E. coli to produce milk—a huge experiment conducted on the public, says Dr. Chopra.

While the FDA admits that clone calves that “die or are euthanized due to poor health” are rendered into animal feed byproducts that present “possible risks” to food animals and the people who eat them, it is less worried about healthy clones.

Healthies are “unlikely” to be used for human food “given their potential value as breeding stock” or even used as animal food, “except through rendering of dead clones that occurred at parturition or by accident.”

Since the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, was created in 1996, cloning has become more common and causes less outrage than new Frankenfoods like the Enviropig with its roundworm gene and AquAdvantage salmon with its Chinook salmon gene (both moving toward FDA approval).

But whether it’s become common in our food no one can know—because it’s unlabeled and could be anywhere.

Martha Rosenberg is a journalist who lives in Chicago.

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