The safety is clear. It's the emotional aspects that tend to muddy things in consumers' minds.
And so, just as with nearly every issue that the cattle industry deals with, the battle for consumers' hearts and minds over livestock cloning comes down to this question: Can science trump emotion?
Often, the answer falls firmly on the side of emotion, as recent issues such as the debate on horse slaughter clearly show. With cloning, however, the beef industry has an ally that most cattlemen wouldn't necessarily consider — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA earlier this year released a Draft Risk Assessment (DRA) on livestock cloning that says, “meat and milk from the clones of adult cattle, pigs and goats, and their offspring, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals.” That's pretty direct language, coming as it did from the land of bureaucratic doublespeak.
Question is, will consumers believe it?
The answer is generally yes, according to a pair of research studies. The studies essentially found that, while some consumers are uneasy about the idea, two-thirds would either buy or would consider buying meat and milk from the offspring of cloned animals if FDA said it was safe.
“Cloning is an assisted reproductive technology,” says Barbara Glenn, managing director, animal biotechnology, with the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington, D.C. “And to that end, clones are genetic twins to another superior, proven animal. It's usually going to be, of course, an animal we already have a lot of data on, we know what desirable traits he or she throws and we want to continue those specific traits. So we're not changing the genes in any way. We're making a twin of an animal that's reaching the end of his or her productive life.”
Given the cost of cloning, which runs in the range of $15,000-$20,000/head, genetic twinning is going to be done on only the most genetically superior animals, Glenn says. “It's an added tool in the tool box. It isn't the end-all. It's providing us the opportunity to continue some genetics that we already know about.”
But what about consumers?
While many in the industry may look at cloning in a similar light to artificial insemination and embryo transfer, research shows that most consumers, while they've heard about cloning, don't think about it much, at least at this point. That's changing, now that FDA has closed the comment period on its DRA of cloning and will, probably in the next year or so, release its final scientific assessment on the food safety risks of livestock cloning. While nobody is willing to predict when FDA will release its final assessment, or whether FDA will change its stance, the strong and direct language contained in the DRA indicates FDA is comfortable with the technology from a food safety standpoint.
“A large percentage of consumers in America have heard about cloning, mostly because they've heard about Dolly. But they don't understand the technology beyond that,” Glenn says. “The advantage this gives us in the research we've done with consumers is that their attitudes are soft and changeable. So that's our challenge. We have shown in research that when we provide the facts about the technology, acceptance rate shifts 20% in favor of cloning.”
Key in that consumer acceptance, the research shows, is that consumers want FDA to affirm the safety of the technology. FDA did exactly that in its DRA.
Between now and the release of the Final Risk Assessment is a golden time for the beef industry to help consumers understand what cloning is and the benefits it brings to cattlemen and consumers alike. It's also a golden time for the anti-cloning activists.
Glenn says there's an industry coalition that includes biotechnology and cloning providers, meat and dairy processors and producer groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. This coalition is working to get information about cloning distributed, particularly to retailers.
“I think the urgency is pretty high to get that done,” Glenn says. “Some of those retailers are hearing from their consumers and they don't understand cloning. As livestock producers, it's our job to work with them, provide them information that will allow them to understand what an assisted reproductive technology is, how we breed livestock today, and what's the difference between a clone and the offspring of a clone.”
That's being done via direct contact with retailers and their organizations, and with traditional techniques such as developing third-party spokespeople and proactively making them available to key media.
In Glenn's mind, the issue will come down to the offspring of clones, not necessarily the cloned animals themselves. Right now, FDA has asked the industry to voluntarily keep cloned animals out of the food supply and the industry is honoring that. And the coalition is dealing with the potential for that issue to remain. But, as Glenn points out, there won't be a large number of cloned animals around, even five to 10 years from now.
But there will be, over time, a fair amount of progeny. And it has to be through the acceptance of the cloned progeny in the food supply that the industry will create the environment for cloning to succeed or fail as a useful technology, Glenn says.
The coalition is ramping up to help retailers and their consumers understand the issue and the safety of meat produced from the offspring of cloned animals. “We know the FDA safety assurance is key to this whole situation,” Glenn says.
“I think it's a matter of continuing to do our best to have the information out there and provide it proactively.”
Find out more
In addition to consumers, many people in the cattle industry don't fully understand the technology of cloning, according to Barbara Glenn, managing director, animal biotechnology, with the Biotechnology Industry Organization. However, a number of Web sites offer information about animal biotechnology, including cloning. Visit www.clonesafety.org and www.bio.org/foodag for information on cloning and answers to questions relating to animal welfare. To read the FDA Draft Risk Assessment, go to www.fda.gov/cvm/CloneRiskAssessment.htm.