The cloning process for cattle is almost identical to human embryo cloning techniques. The process, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, involves the removal of an egg cell’s DNA and replaces it with DNA from a body cell of a donor. The resulting cell can be chemically programmed to divide. If the cell survives, it may become an exact genetic duplicate of the body cell donor animal.
In practice, the process produces a high proportion of deformed animals that cannot survive. As cells divide, their chromosomes get shorter. This is because the DNA sequences at both ends of a chromosome—called telomeres—shrink each time the DNA is copied. What does this mean? It means problems can develop during later development. Aging is affected. Chromosomes from cloned cattle seem to have a longer lifespan compared with the cells of naturally conceived cattle. However, Dolly, the cloned sheep, had cells aging faster than cells from a normal sheep. Dolly’s death at the relatively early age of six years old fuels the debate about the long-term health of clones.
Problems of development associated with cloning have not been solved. Scientists aren’t sure why cloned animals show differences in telomere length. According to the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, “There has not yet been a single cloned mammal that has yet been alive long enough to have lived a natural life span for that animal. We can’t underestimate the unanswered questions about cloning.”
Yet, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded meat and milk from cloned animals are safe for human consumption, clearing the way for cloned products to enter the U.S. food supply. Remember, this is the same FDA that proclaimed DES was safe in our food, which was later discovered to cause cancer, and the same FDA that permits synthetic steroid male and female hormones and synthetic growth promoters to be added to our food today. The FDA in its ruling also concluded no labeling is required to inform the consumer that the food is derived from cloned animals or their offspring.
“The FDA has acted recklessly, and I am profoundly disappointed in their rush to approve cloned foods,” said Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, co-sponsor of a bill amendment passed by the U.S. Senate, which asked the FDA not to rule until further research was available. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said cloned animal products may not be safe and further study was needed. Of course, the biotechnology industry disagrees with the EFSA and Senator Barbara Mikulski. “The biotechnology industry applauds the FDA for its comprehensive scientific review of this new assisted reproductive technology,” said Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents companies and institutions in the biotech field.
The FDA asked for a “voluntary moratorium” on keeping cloned products out of the food supply for now. However, a New York Times article reports that Donald Coover of Kansas has sold enough semen from a cloned bull in one year to inseminate 2,000 cows. In 2008, Coover told the Washington Post that it “is a fairy tale that this technology is not being used and is not already in the food chain.”
Are meat and milk from cloned animals really safe to eat? The rush to judgment by the FDA prevents a safe and thorough answer to that question. Once again, the American consumer becomes the laboratory test animal, as in the case of DES.