The Clones On Our Plates

Is food from cloned animals safe to eat? The debate continues, but some of the meat and milk is already making its way into the marketplace in the U.S. - and possibly Canada.

by Alex Roslin
The Montreal Gazette
Saturday, September 06, 2008

Clones. To some, the word evokes Frankenfood or Star Wars Stormtroopers. To veterinarian Donald Coover, it conjures a miraculous world of super-cows with high milk and meat yields and horses as fast as Secretariat, the legendary Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred.
Coover is helping to lead the clone revolution out of tiny Galesburg, Kansas, a village of 150 with one convenience store and two churches, surrounded by fields of wheat and cattle ranches.
This is the home base of Coover's company SEK Genetics and its thriving business of selling semen from elite cows to farmers. He says he has also sold enough semen from cloned cows to inseminate tens of thousands of farm animals, and he says "dozens at least, hundreds probably" of other cloning businesses in the U.S. are doing the same thing.
Despite a request by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that farmers respect a voluntary moratorium on selling food from clones to consumers, Coover says he has sold dozens of clones and their offspring to farmers for use in food production since 2001.
"It's not illegal, and it's not unethical," he said. "Instead of having just another damn horse, you have Secretariat every time. That is why it's enormously useful." Cloning is a way to create a perfect genetic copy of an adult animal. Its cell material is transferred to an egg that is grown into an embryo and implanted in a surrogate mother.
Advocates like Coover say the process can help farmers duplicate top livestock and improve meat and milk yields.
"It's frustrating to me that we've been able to develop this incredible technology, and people are bitching and moaning about it," he said.
Food from clones is still banned in Canada, but Health Canada is now considering whether to lift the ban.
Surveys show widespread public unease about the technology. In a 2003 survey for the Canadian government, only 24 per cent of Canadians and 32 per cent of Americans supported the use of cloned animals for food.
The most common concern was "long-term risk to human health," cited by 37 per cent of Canadians.
After a seven-year scientific review, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last January okayed meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs and goats and their offspring as being safe to eat.
The selling of clone food to consumers is still on hold while the U.S. Department of Agriculture works out a plan to assuage the concerns of consumers in the U.S. and abroad. In the interim, it has asked cloners and livestock farmers to continue to respect its voluntary moratorium.
"The food in every respect is indistinguishable from food from any other animal," FDA official Stephen Sundlof told reporters last January.
But the scientific debate about clone food still appears far from over. In fact, Sundlof's statement seems to be contradicted by a 2006 background paper on cloning prepared by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that was obtained through an access-to-information request.
The CFIA paper and the FDA's own 968-page scientific review published last January depict cloning as an unpredictable technology fraught with problems that almost always leads to outright failure or disfigured animals that aren't safe to eat.
Even in cases where clones and their offspring look healthy, they appear to suffer from genetic abnormalities and research is sparse on whether their food is safe, the documents say.
"There is not enough data to indicate there will be no problem," said Pascale Chavatte-Palmer, one of the world's leading cloning researchers, whose studies are cited over 50 times in the FDA report.
"I think we should know more. We feel there is a rush to accept those clones," she said in an interview.
In Europe, food from clones isn't being sold because of formal and informal moratoriums in various countries. But this week, the European Parliament voted 622-to-32 to urge the European Union's executive branch to ban food from clones, citing concerns about food safety, consumer confidence and animal suffering.
The move followed a report from the European Food Safety Authority in July that said, while there is "no clear evidence" food from cloned cows and pigs is unsafe, more study is needed because of the lack of data.


Chavatte-Palmer is no anti-biotech Luddite. She's dined on what she calls "very good" cloned Kobe beef, which she thinks was most likely safe to eat. Yet, she paints a picture of a technology that's about as precise as a steamroller.
Out of 1,000 attempts, a clone embryo is successfully developed and implanted into a surrogate mother only about 100 times, said Chavatte-Palmer, who is a research leader at the French government's Institut Nationale de la Recherche Agronomique, the leading agricultural-research institute in Europe.
Of those 100 embryo transfers, just five fetuses are typically born alive, she said.
The rest mostly miscarry due to genetic or physical defects or abnormal placentas. Their most common abnormality is called large offspring syndrome, which results in fetuses 20- to 85-per-cent larger than average.
The animals that survive to birth also often have large offspring syndrome - which occurs in up to half of clone births - or other severe problems like a deformed head, contracted tendons, extreme diarrhea, diabetes, respiratory failure, heart disease and kidney problems. Many die shortly after birth.
A Japanese study cited in the FDA's review painted an unsettling picture of several clone calves that had died. "The neck was bent backwards, the hind legs were stretched tightly or the second joints were bent toward the opposite direction from the normal position," it said.
"Calf No. 12 was disemboweled at parturition and the face of calf 16 was warped."
Some of the calves had been born with "an 'adult' appearance" and displayed "many wrinkles in the skin, thick bone structure and rough hairs resembling those of adult males."
Indeed, Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell in 1996, lived for only six years, half the average lifespan for her breed, and developed obesity, lung cancer and premature arthritis.
Even the few clones that appear to be healthy really aren't, said Chavatte-Palmer, who is one of a small handful of scientists worldwide to have studied the long-term health of clones.
"Cloned animals, although apparently normal, are however significantly different from (conventionally raised animals) maintained in the same conditions," she wrote in a paper in the journal Animal last year.
The CFIA came to a similar conclusion in its paper. "There is an inadequate amount of information on any species to determine long-term physiological effects (of cloning)," it said.
"Early research suggests that these animals have subtle gene expression abnormalities."
The CFIA said cloning "could have long-term effects that compromise animal health and survival."


So is food from clones safe to eat? The FDA's review concluded that meat and milk from deformed clones, which die early in life or need to be euthanized, is unsafe.
But in a little-noticed passage deep in its report, the agency okayed this food for entry into the human food chain if it is treated in a meat-rendering plant.
Rendering plants process dead animals from zoos and shelters, old meat from grocery stores and butcher-shop trimmings by chopping them up, then cooking them at high temperatures.
Rendering leads to several products that enter the human food chain directly and indirectly, including lard, tallow, protein for livestock feed and crop fertilizer.
The FDA report cites no research on whether or not rendered food from abnormal clones is safe.
"There is not a single study of that," said Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Centre for Food Safety.
Hanson said it can't be assumed the rendering process makes all animal products safe to eat. "They don't let animals with mad cow disease enter the food supply through rendering," he said. "They have a belief this is safe. Belief is wonderful for a religious organization."
As for healthy-looking clones, the FDA says their food is identical to that from other animals. "These products are not different than food from traditionally bred animals," Bruce Knight, a senior U.S. Department of Agriculture official, told reporters last January.
But the CFIA paper and the FDA's own review raise questions about this conclusion as well.
"The use of (cloning) may have an effect on gene expression in the resulting animals and thus alter food characteristics, such as biochemical composition, which may be a food safety concern," the CFIA paper says.
"Stress-related developmental problems in young clones may also present an indirect food safety concern. This may lead to increased usage of antimicrobials for the treatment of such disease-prone clones and could also have an effect on the shedding of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria."
The FDA's review acknowledges no large-scale studies of the meat and milk of clones have been done. It relies on 10 small-scale studies involving an average of just five clones each.
Five of the 10 studies found statistically significant differences between food from clones and conventionally bred animals.
Chavatte-Palmer did one of those five studies. She found cow clones reached puberty an average of 62 days later than normal animals, which she said "probably will affect the quality (of their meat) ... The full maturation of muscle is delayed in clones."
As well, she found milk from cow clones had different levels of some fatty acids and enzymes than milk from conventional animals. She concluded more research is needed on whether the differences could cause food allergies.
For pork, the FDA cited only two studies involving seven clones in total, both done by biotech company ViaGen. They found the clones grew 30-per-cent slower than normal animals and had less meat. Two of the clones had so many health problems their data wasn't even included in the final results. The FDA questioned the study because of the small number of clones.
No studies have been done at all on food from goats, the third clone species that the FDA okayed.


For all the talk about clones, the fact is we're actually unlikely to ever see a clone T-bone at the butcher shop. That's because clones are up to 10 times more expensive to produce than conventional animals - $10,000 to $16,000 for a cow and $6,000 for a pig.
The main source of clone-derived food is likely to be naturally bred offspring of clones. The FDA says clone offspring have fewer health problems than clones and are identical to normal animals.
But the CFIA background paper says there is "limited" data on food from clone offspring and cited two major U.S. reviews of the issue that expressed concern about the "inconclusive evidence" about the safety of their food.
The FDA's report cited no studies on meat or milk from the offspring of cows or goats and only two studies on pork from the offspring of pig clones. The clone offspring were mostly the same as conventional animals, but like the clones had several differences: Of 58 nutrients tested, clone offspring meat had significantly less of seven nutrients, while more of two others. It was also somewhat fattier, more acidic and shrunk more during cooking - indications of poorer quality.
There is also little longer-term research about the health of offspring as they age.
The FDA review says the offspring seem to be healthier than their clone parents because their genetic errors are "reset."
But one of the scientists the FDA cites in its review says he disagrees with the agency's conclusion.
Dean Betts, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Guelph, is one of the few scientists to have looked into the health of clone offspring.
Betts found the offspring of goat and sheep clones have genetic abnormalities - significantly shorter telomeres, which are the chromosome endings that are believed to control aging and susceptibility to cancer.
Shorter telomere lengths could explain why many clones seem to age faster than normal animals. Dolly the sheep was also found to have shorter telomeres.
"We don't know what it means or if it has health impacts," Betts said. "I would say not enough study has been done ... There could be some impacts on the species itself over generations."
In France, Chavatte-Palmer had hopes of getting some definitive answers to the questions about the health and food of clones and their offspring. But her cloning work has ground virtually to a halt. Funding has dried up, she says, because cloning is a sensitive issue for grant-funding agencies.
"We have piles of data that we haven't had time and money to get help to analyze," she said. "It's very difficult to get funding in this area of research. It's frustrating, very frustrating."

Are we already dining on clones?
No labels on clone food in U.S., FDA says

Canadians may have been consuming food from clones for years without knowing it, despite a Health Canada ban.

That’s one of the surprising revelations from documents on cloning from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency obtained under the access-to-information legislation.

About 800 cloned dairy cattle produced through an early version of cloning called embryonic-cell nuclear transfer and from embryo splitting have been registered in Canada since the 1980s, said a CFIA background paper on cloning written in 2006.

The CFIA paper said food from these clones can be sold to Canadian consumers. “There is generally no restriction on the marketing of products, by-products or the progeny of animal clones that are produced using the embryo-splitting technique in Canada or elsewhere,” it said.

The CFIA paper didn’t say whether milk from the cloned cows was indeed sold to consumers. An agency spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Health Canada, however, says no food from clones, including embryonic-cell nuclear-transfer clones, can be sold in the country. “It shouldn’t be on the market,” said Paul Duchesne, a department spokesman.

Embryonic-cell nuclear-transfer was used in the 1980s and early 1990s but was replaced in the mid-1990s by an improved technique called somatic-cell nuclear-transfer cloning, which replicates an adult animal, instead of an embryo.

Donald Coover, a Kansas veterinarian who says he has sold clones and their semen to farmers in the U.S. for years, said hundreds of embryonic-cell nuclear-transfer clones were produced in the U.S. and that their meat and milk quietly entered the U.S. food supply without any official safety review.

He said it’s very likely the same thing happened in Canada. “Nobody at the time made a big deal about it.”

And now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has okayed clone food for human consumption, the CFIA again seems to have no plan for keeping it out of the country, according to an internal email sent by a manager at the agency.

“CFIA has no specific regulatory controls for animal clones,” said the email, dated Feb. 14, a month after the FDA’s decision last January. “There are no special tracking provisions.”

The issue of tracking food from clones is complicated by the fact that the FDA has decided not to label the food, and there’s no way to test if a particular animal is a clone.

“All we’ve had are some preliminary discussions on… the feasibility of detection,” said a CFIA official, who spoke off the record because she is not authorized to talk with journalists. “Nothing has been put in place, and no policies have been created around that.”

Quebec farmers shrug off cloning—it’s too costly

Quebec farmers don’t seem to be rushing to embrace cloning. The Union des Producteurs Agricoles, representing 44,000 Quebec farmers, says it has no position on whether to embrace food from clones.

“We haven’t discussed it very much,” said spokesman Patrice Juneau. “It’s not a very important issue for us.”

The 3,800-member Fédération des producteurs de porcs du Québec, also has no position, said spokeswoman Nathalie Hansen.

“The steps required to produce a live (clone) animal are almost a nightmare for farm applications,” said Roger Sauvé, a cow veterinarian in St. Louis de Gonzague, 45 kilometres southwest of Montreal, who specializes in reproductive services for farmers.

“It’s very, very expensive to produce cloned animals right now. Farmers are not ready to pay that kind of money. Practically, it doesn’t make sense.”

Sauvé said existing reproductive technologies are more efficient and cheaper and also offer the advantage of improving a herd’s genetics if two top animals are bred together, while clones can only be as good as their progenitors.

For more information:
- European Parliament reports on cloning
- The Center for Food Safety’s report on food from clones