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FDA’s Approval of Cloned Beef for Human Consumption Ignites Debate

May 27, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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The Food and Drug Administration recently approved meat and milk from cloned cows as safe for human consumption. However, some observers believe the FDA's decision was hasty and more study of the issue is needed. Tom Bearden reports on the controversy.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, cloning animals to produce meat we can eat. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has our Science Unit report.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Don Coover clones cows and is working very hard to put their offspring on supermarket shelves all over the world.

DR. DON COOVER, SEK Genetics: We’re standing on the edge of a revolution in biotechnology that’s going to completely transform not only the way we produce production animals, but the way humans live their lives. This is hugely advantageous down the road.

TOM BEARDEN: Coover is a veterinarian and semen dealer in eastern Kansas. He runs one of a growing number of animal genetics companies that plan on producing a lot of meat for human consumption.

Most people remember the sheep Dolly, the first animal cloned from an adult cell back in 1996. The story faded from the front pages.

But Coover and others in the livestock industry saw huge potential benefits for cloning other kinds of animals and began experimenting. But they knew they would need federal approval to sell cloned products to the general public.

So, in 2001, meat producers petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to say yes. At the same time, the Department of Agriculture asked the industry to hold off putting any cloned meat products on the market during the study period.

After seven years, the FDA finally made a decision.

DR. STEPHEN SUNDLOF, Director, Center for Veterinary Medicine, FDA: After years of detailed study and analysis, the Food and Drug Administration has concluded that meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats, and the offspring of clones from any species traditionally consumed as food are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals.

Cloning holds great potential

Don Coover
SEK Genetics
With cloning technology, you know exactly what you're going to come up with. You're going to come up with a winning combination every time because that's what you put in there.

TOM BEARDEN: Coover, who's been cloning very high-value breeding stock for years, applauded the decision. He says it's the best way to improve a breed of animals quickly.

DR. DON COOVER: Every time you mate animals together, you spin this giant genetic roulette wheel, and you really don't know what's going to happen. You really don't know what you're going to see.

I mean, you can hedge your bet a little bit by using really good females or really good bulls, but you really don't know what's going to pop out of there.

With cloning technology, you know exactly what you're going to come up with. You're going to come up with a winning combination every time because that's what you put in there.

TOM BEARDEN: The type of cloning he practices begins with collecting a cell from the animal that is to be copied. He sends the cells to a laboratory in Pennsylvania, where they are cultured, allowed to multiply.

The nucleus of the cell, the part carrying the organism's DNA, is then used to replace the nucleus in an egg taken from another cow that's been slaughtered. Electricity is applied, and the cells begin to divide.

The lab sends this early stage embryo back to Coover, who implants it into a cow that acts as a surrogate mother. What is born is a genetically exact copy of the original.

DR. DON COOVER: What you're trying to do is extend and preserve already-identified superior genetics, female genetics, and we didn't have that option to do that before. And it's not where you're just trying to preserve those genetics through offspring; you can actually preserve that exact set of genetics.

Critics question test credibility

Jaydee Hanson
Center for Food Safety
I'm not challenging the credentials of these people, but the FDA really should have chosen some different researchers so that they can say, 'We really had an arms-length look at this research.' We don't think they've done that.

TOM BEARDEN: But not everyone is convinced that putting cloned animals into the human food supply chain is such a good idea. Critics believe the Food and Drug Administration hasn't done nearly enough research to justify its claim that all of this is completely safe.

JAYDEE HANSON, Center for Food Safety: Well, we don't think that the FDA has done its homework.

TOM BEARDEN: Jaydee Hanson is with the Center for Food Safety, a self-described environmental and public health organization which is vehemently opposed to cloned food. Hanson says the FDA only considered a few small studies done by the industry itself.

JAYDEE HANSON: Two of its three reviewers had close ties to the industry. One was even reviewing papers that she had written.

So we don't think that this is an example of the FDA doing its best work. I'm not challenging the credentials of these people, but the FDA really should have chosen some different researchers so that they can say, "We really had an arms-length look at this research." We don't think they've done that.

TOM BEARDEN: The FDA declined the NewsHour's request for an interview to respond...

MARK WALTON, President, ViaGen: The commercial application of somatic cell nuclear transfer...

TOM BEARDEN: ... but Mark Walton argues the FDA's action was based on sound science. He's president of ViaGen, an Austin, Texas-based company that's been cloning show animals, those entered into breeding competitions, for years.

MARK WALTON: What FDA did was took all of the data that was available from scientists around the world. Most of those data were peer-reviewed by outside scientists before the FDA ever saw it. The safety question has been very clearly addressed by the Food and Drug Administration, as well as other agencies around the world.

Labeling also controversial

Patrick Cunningham
Chairman, IdentiGEN
So its place with clones, I think, essentially is that, if any, for whatever reason, a supermarket chain wishes to exclude clones because, let's say, its customers say, 'We want no clones in our meat,' that's possible to do with our technology.

TOM BEARDEN: But will people want to eat meat and milk from clones? Hanson says the government ought to require labels on any product connected to cloning.

AD NARRATOR: All Tesco Finest Beef is certified Irish Angus Beef.

TOM BEARDEN: Three Irish supermarket chains demanded special labeling to reassure their customers in the midst of the mad cow disease outbreak in Europe several years ago. Their meat is tested for DNA to provide traceability to the source of products.

Patrick Cunningham told an audience at a recent meeting of the American Academy of Science that American supermarkets might want to use the same technique to advertise that their meat is clone-free. Cunningham is an animal genetics professor and chairman of IdentiGEN, the company that sells the testing.

DR. PATRICK CUNNINGHAM, Chairman, IdentiGEN: As you well know, clones have been declared safe -- and I believe they are safe -- but there are people who are concerned about them.

So its place with clones, I think, essentially is that, if any, for whatever reason, a supermarket chain wishes to exclude clones because, let's say, its customers say, "We want no clones in our meat," that's possible to do with our technology.

TOM BEARDEN: But opponents say labeling would quickly become a stigma, implying something was wrong with the meat.

DR. DON COOVER: It's sort of like going into a restaurant and saying, "OK, we're going to force you to label coffee as being produced in a microwave or on a gas range or an electric range."

TOM BEARDEN: And advocates say consumers aren't likely to be eating meat from cloned animals in any case. It costs about $17,000 to create a clone, far too costly for the slaughterhouse.

Instead, the offspring of clones would wind up on supermarket shelves. Those animals would be the result of natural reproduction, not cloning.

Bruce Knight is undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at USDA.

BRUCE KNIGHT, Undersecretary, USDA: The progeny of the animals are very different from the clones. They are the result of normal or natural sexual reproduction. And as such, the progeny are the same as any other offspring, of any other active, natural reproduction.

TOM BEARDEN: Jaydee Hanson is not convinced. He thinks long-term studies have to be done over the next 6 to 10 years to ensure that the offspring of cloned animals are safe to eat.

How long would those studies take that would satisfy you?

JAYDEE HANSON: I would like to see at least third-generation studies of offspring.

Public has skewed image of cloning

Michael Fernandez
Former Executive Director, Pew Institute
This idea of cloning is sort of -- you know, you see it in bad science fiction movies and other kinds of, you know, sort of popular culture, that it raises people's antennae in a certain way.

TOM BEARDEN: The public has concerns about cloning that go beyond whether it's fit for human consumption. Michael Fernandez.

MICHAEL FERNANDEZ, Former Executive Director, Pew Institute on Food and Biotechnology: This idea of cloning is sort of -- you know, you see it in bad science fiction movies and other kinds of, you know, sort of popular culture, that it raises people's antennae in a certain way.

TOM BEARDEN: He says studies he supervised a couple of years ago also showed some people are concerned about the religious and ethical implications.

MICHAEL FERNANDEZ: This is controversial. I mean, in polling that the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology did in 2006, something like 64 percent of the respondents said that they were uncomfortable with animal cloning.

TOM BEARDEN: The industry acknowledges cloning techniques present serious risks for the surrogate cows and the clones themselves. Some clone embryos grow much larger than normal and have organ defects. And a lot of clones are born very weak and require antibiotics to survive.

Many scientists believe these problems will subside as the microscopic techniques used to transfer cell nuclei are perfected. And Fernandez thinks that the food producers will find a way to make the American public more comfortable with the notion.

MICHAEL FERNANDEZ: I'm sure they've done their own kinds of research. So I think what they're looking for is a period of transition for the industry to try to figure out how they want to introduce these products into the marketplace.

BRUCE KNIGHT: We have asked the industry, which was operating under a voluntary moratorium during FDA's risk assessment, to continue that moratorium while we go through a period of time allowing other countries, as well as folks in the United States, to really look at the cloning issue and gain market acceptance.

TOM BEARDEN: But Coover says the moratorium was actually broken a long time ago. He says it's an open secret that hundreds of bulls have been cloned since 2000 and their semen sold openly.

That semen was used to produce as many as 25,000 offspring in each of the last seven years, animals subsequently slaughtered and consumed by humans. Even so, those animals represent a miniscule portion of the 37 million cows slaughtered each year in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: You can ask questions about the cloned beef debate on our Web site. Go to PBS.org and scroll down to Online NewsHour Reports.