Shirley Trimmer knows her hamburgers. She prepares them with a handful of bread cubes, a little egg, chopped onions, and just the right sprinkling of salt and pepper. Last Friday, on Jan. 5, Trimmer prepared some of the burgers for a lunch meeting of the seven-member team that makes up the biotech company Cyagra, based in Elizabethtown, Pa.
But something was different about these hamburgers: They were made from the meat of cloned cows. For the last year or so, every Friday, employees at Cyagra have been eating their way through the thousands of pounds of beef left over from the 11 clones that the company raised and slaughtered for a cloned-meat study. "We started with the steaks, which we grilled all summer long, and now we have hamburger meat left over," says Trimmer. Steve Mower, the company's director of marketing, says, "She cooks [the burgers] just right. They're delicious."
No Big Deal Here
Like it or not, Trimmer and her colleagues may be getting a taste of the future. On Dec. 28, the Food & Drug Administration issued an 800-page report which concluded that meat and milk from clones are safe for consumption. The FDA has asked for public comment on the issue over the next couple of months, but it appears likely to give final approval for food from cloned animals. Until then, the FDA has asked producers of clones as well as livestock breeders to voluntarily refrain from introducing food products fromm these animals.
"Based on the FDA's analysis of hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and other studies on the health and food composition of clones and their offspring, the draft risk assessment has determined that meat and milk from clones and their offspring are as safe as food we eat every day," says Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "Cloning poses no unique risks to animal health when compared to other assisted reproductive technologies currently in use in U.S. agriculture."
The FDA's opinions, however, have hardly settled the issue. Consumer activists and others are taking issue with the prospect of cloned foods. "The FDA is relying on results from just about 100 animals, which is a very small sample, and safety questions cannot be answered with such a small sample," charges Joseph Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based consumer and environmental-protection group. The Center for Food Safety says that cloning can result in deformities in animals and should be halted for its cruelty.
Science is only part of the issue with cloned foods, however. Perception may be even more important. The workers at Cyagra started up their Friday lunches out of a simple desire not to let good food go to waste. But what they're doing with their cloned beef may, in its own small way, have an effect on how cloned foods are perceived more broadly. "It's not a big deal," says Mower. "I've eaten cloned beef for a year and a half. It's scientifically proven to be safe."
Many people are not convinced, on the basis of science and sensibility. "There's something that is deeply repugnant in the minds of consumers about eating cloned animals," says Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat and Food Politics, and a nutrition professor at New York University.
Mendelson, of the Center for Food Safety, says the ethical and moral issues of cloning should be debated further. He contends that there are many risks and few benefits for consumers of the FDA proposal. "This is FDA policy gone awry, and [it]only benefits a few cloning companies, not consumers," says Mendelson.
Ron Marquess, a rancher in East Texas, begs to differ. Cloning has been a lifesaver for Marquess, who owns Watson 101, a neutered bull who has won a competition for being the longest horned steer in the world, with horns measuring 101 inches straight across from one end to the other.
"Clearly his family tree was gone because he was neutered, but now with cloning I have three more bulls from him and gained back a lost genetic gold mine," says Marquess, who breeds cattle for beef, rodeo, and reproduction.
With a herd of 150 Longhorn cattle, Marquess says that cloning will help create cleaner herds of cattle with fewer diseases. Today, he has at least 12 of his best bulls and cows cloned, some for their prize-winning capabilities, some for their ability to produce low-fat meat, and at least one for her ability to produce large calves. "Because it's so expensive to clone an animal, we make sure that we choose the best of the best and test them for every disease possible," he says.
Since it costs upwards of $16,000 to produce a clone, it's unlikely that any cloned animals themselves will be used for meat or milk. Rather, their offspring and future lines slowly will make their way into the food system, a process that will take a minimum of five years for beef and two and a half years for pork, say experts. (See the slide show on cloned foods.)
In its draft guidance, the FDA notes that because of their cost and rarity, clones will be used as are any other elite breeding stock—to pass on naturally occurring, desirable traits such as disease resistance and higher-quality meat to production herds. "Because clones will be used primarily for breeding, almost all of the food that comes from the cloning process is expected to be from sexually reproduced offspring and descendents of clones and not the clones themselves," says the draft.
CEO Mark Walton of ViaGen, the largest cloning company in the U.S., believes that by the time the meat and milk starts hitting grocery stores in five years, the public hopefully will have overcome a lot of the current skepticism. Walton, whose company has cloned more than 250 animals so far, certainly has his work cut out for him. Even today, only a few breeders are willing to experiment with cloning because of the societal taboos and because it's so expensive.
Walton maintains that the Center for Food Safety's allegation that many clones have deformities is one of many common misconceptions. "Such assertions are based on obsolete data, which the National Academy of Sciences has already looked into twice," says Walton.
The FDA is likely to issue a final, formal approval of cloned food before the end of the year. Experts say the agency will probably make the United States the first country to allow products from cloned livestock to be sold in grocery stores. Trimmer, Mower, and the rest of the staff at Cyagra aren't waiting. Though the steaks are gone, Trimmer is using her culinary skills to make the most of the ground beef they have on hand. Besides hamburgers, she's using the meat to make chili, tacos, and meatballs for spaghetti Bolognese.
Click here for the slide show on cloned foods.