One big piece of news in the food world this week was the FDA approval of food/products from cloned animals. Today is the first time I’ve actually been able to sit down, read a few news stories, and comment on the issue. Needless to say, I have some pretty strongly worded thoughts on cloned food.
One of the things that is most interesting to me about this news story is the widespread opposition to the sale of cloned food, and the fact that the mass media is widely reporting on this opposition. Even CNN had a few comments on the opposition, and CNN is pretty much my source for the pulse of the mainstream media. (That and Fox news, but my sensibilities are fragile this morning, so I couldn’t bring myself to go to the Fox site.) Independent media sources are, of course, shitting their pants.
“Extensive evaluation of the available data has not identified any subtle hazards that might indicate food-consumption risks in healthy clones of cattle, swine, or goats,” says the FDA. This may well be true, although I feel like this is the sort of thing which should be studied for decades, not years. CNN also points out that the FDA admits “food from newborn cattle clones ‘may pose some very limited human food consumption risk.’” Why would meat from calves cause potential health risks, when meat from adult cows would not? Is it because calves are still growing, so their super-cloned-genes will run amuck in the human body? (Kidding. Or am I?)
I will freely admit that I am a bit of a luddite about what I put in my mouth, and cloned food makes me anxious. The fact that I am already unknowingly eating transgenic produce gives me the heebie jeebies; the thought of eating cloned animal products is that much more disturbing. As a regulatory body, the FDA is supposed to protect consumers, and the FDA has the power to make decisions which directly impact my health. In a lot of ways, we as consumers are powerless to take control of our supplies of food and medications, and we rely on the FDA to institute at least a few regulations which are designed to prevent us from, you know, dying. This is especially true for people in the lower classes, as they lack the purchasing power and informed education which could allow them to make their own choices.
Regardless as to whether or not I think cloned meat is safe, the larger issue for me is that the FDA is not requiring labeling. As a consumer, I like to believe that I at least have some choice; I can choose to buy organic vegetables, for example, and I can choose to source animal products from humanely raised animals. In the “land of the free,” consumer choice seems like a really important value to preserve.
Marion Nestle put the issue pretty succintly here:
I am willing to grant that GM and cloned foods are probably safe, but so what? I devote the first chapter of my book, Safe Food, to a serious discussion of this question. To summarize: if you have concerns–moral, ethical, religious, social, or political–about the way food is produced, you might choose not to eat GM or cloned foods. But you don’t have a choice, because neither is labeled. I think they should be.
Furthermore, and this point has also been made elsewhere, what happens if we learn that cloned food is unsafe? How do you stage a recall on cloned meats when they are thoroughly integrated into every level of the food distribution system? How do you alert consumers to a problem when you have no way of tracking the path of cloned meat in our food supply? When you think about this aspect of the issue, the FDA’s decision not to require labeling seems almost criminally negligent.
This news could also impact organic/beyond organic standards. If cloned animals are accepted as identical to their conventionally produced counterparts, this means that they could fairly easily enter the supply of organic/naturally raised meats, and this is a big issue for me. I’m curious to see if farmers who are concerned about the issue start their own standard to try and keep clones out of their barns/fields; I suspect that certified clone free meat (if such a certification could be established) could fetch a pretty price.
I also wouldn’t be too surprised to see the European Union ban American meat and animal products, because they tend to be a bit more cautious about things like this. And whatever they’re doing food regulation wise seems to be working, seeing as how I don’t read about food recalls there every week.
A wise friend of mine would probably say that the news of FDA/USDA approval of cloned food is a pretty persuasive argument for going vegan, and I’d say he might be right. It would be pretty interesting if there was a sudden uptick in veganism in response to this.
If you want to learn more about cloned animals in the food supply, my pals over at the Ethicurean put together a great digest of links.