Like it or not, cloned foods are on their way. Meat, milk, and cheese made from the offspring of cloned animals should hit grocery stores within a year, says Elisa Odabashian, West Coast director of the Consumers Union. If that makes you queasy, you're not alone: A May 2007 Consumers Union national survey showed that 69 percent of Americans have concerns about cloned products in the food supply.
Odabashian thinks you have reason to worry, despite an FDA preliminary report stating the products are safe. No one can predict whether there will be any long-term consequences to consuming the foods, she says. The Center for Food Safety (CFS) agrees, claiming the science cannot definitively say if cloned meat will be good or bad for people and that the best tack to take is one of vigilance and education.
At the very least, you ought to know when you're buying food made from genetically replicated animals, says Odabashian. Last month her office supported a bill introduced to California's state legislature demanding that cloned food be labeled in supermarkets. Many other states—like Massachusetts, New Jersey, Missouri, Kentucky, and New York—have put similar bills on the table, and bills have been introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Without stickers indicating which foods come from clones, Odabashian says, "there will be no way to track potential negative health effects."
Nonsense, say advocates of cloned foods, who insist the public is misinformed. Few people understand that so-called "cloned meat" is made from the offspring of a lab-replicated animal, not the clones themselves, says Irina Polejaeva, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at ViaGen, a leading livestock cloning and genomics company. Consumers may also be getting worried too soon, she adds, explaining that even if the FDA allowed the release of these products tomorrow, "it would take several years for the meat to reach the market. " Says Polejaeva, "Currently there are only about 600 clones in this country, as compared with tens of millions of livestock."
The cloned-food controversy rose to the forefront last December, when the FDA reached an initial decision proclaiming dairy and meat from the offspring of goats, cows, and pigs as "safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals." The FDA's findings were based on an exhaustive study—one that also won widespread support from the Federation of Animal Science Societies, a group of leading scientists and agriculture educators.
Proponents of cloned meat go even further, saying that bringing the product to market will give Americans access to genetically superior steaks and cutlets (the meat would be produced from only top-quality livestock), and that cloned foods will eventually be less expensive than traditional meats. "Use of this technology allows farmers and ranchers to pinpoint the traits consumers desire, such as meat that is both flavorful and lean," says Polejaeva. "This translates into the best possible food."
Tell that to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation (Harper Perennial, 2005), who once said, "I'd rather eat my running shoes than eat cloned meat." The Consumers Union isn't buying the argument either. "We don't think there are any advantages to cloned products in price, quality, healthfulness, or availability," say Odabashian. It doesn't surprise her that meat and milk producers claim it will be several years before cloned food will be available. "They want to downplay its arrival, knowing that cloned food will not be labeled and that a majority of consumers don't want unlabeled cloned food on the market," she says.
Unfortunately, Californians won't be getting labels for cloned food anytime soon: On October 13, 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill supporting the labeling of meat from cloned sources, citing a federal law that "prohibits states from enacting labeling requirements for meat and poultry" and asserting that labeling "would require tracking and labeling requirements that could be unworkable, costly, and unenforceable." The Consumers Union was "very disappointed," with the news, says Odabashian, who disputes the notion that federal law should apply.
In the end, though, the uproar may actually help organic and all-natural producers. With cloned-food products going unmarked in the dairy and freezer aisles, an all-natural label may be just the kind of reassurance that shoppers will happily pay for.