If your holiday break wasn’t quite as restful as you were hoping, consider the plight of the U.S. beef industry’s public relations’ people. A new report from American scientists claims the meat and milk from cloned animals is safe to eat and drink. That means starting now, the public relations folks must figure out how to make it palatable to consumers, including Canadians. And that’s bound to cause them some sleepless nights.
The agri-food industry has struggled with the public acceptability of cloning ever since the first cloned animals arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s. Cloning, which typically involves removing the nucleus from a donor egg and swapping it with genetic material (DNA) from another animal, promised consistency for farmers and consumers. There’d be no more guessing about whether the conventionally produced progeny of a male and female would share the parents’ desirable traits, such as superior meat quality or milk production. Scientifically, the process seemed attainable, with milestone after milestone being reached through the 1990s, culminating with Dolly the sheep in 1996. The industry was charging ahead.
But people were, and are, confused. In 2002, the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences reported cloned meat and milk was safe to eat. But it also said products from genetically modified animals could pose a health risk. It worried the coming together of different DNA could generate allergens.
So the U.S. called a time out. Europe was already on high alert over biotechnology and food, closing its doors to grain that was genetically modified. The U.S. didn’t need more problems with exports. So it called for another study of the matter. This time, U.S. scientists gathered 13 studies from around the world, about the meat and milk composition from clones and their offspring. And in a report in an animal reproduction scientific journal called Theriogenology, they say there’s no nutritional or toxicological difference in cloned and conventional animals in vitamins, minerals, proteins and fat.
Some analysts say that report will convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to give cloned meat and milk the green light.
However, that still doesn’t address public perception. In advance of the scientific journal report, a survey by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (pewagbiotech.org) found almost two-thirds of Americans are uncomfortable with animal cloning. Well over one-third believe food from clones is unsafe. The new report may ease some of those concerns, but the angst is clear.
On a positive note, this represents a wonderful opportunity for the industry to explain itself, work with those who are concerned about cloning and reach some consensus on introducing such milk and meat. That doesn’t mean there won’t be all kinds of volatility. But at this point, dialogue is vital.
Canadians are among those who should be watching this situation closely. Earlier this month, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that Canada is the No. 1 market for U.S. agricultural exports, having reached a record $10.6 billion in 2005. Consumer-oriented agricultural products led the way, with fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, snack foods, processed horticultural products and red meat products at the top of the list.
Given how we sometimes treat each other at the border, you’d never know we were each other’s biggest agri-food trading partner. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says trading with Canada is in full swing because of proximity, common culture, language, similar lifestyle pursuits and the ease of travel. I doubt if Canadians see it the same way, especially the reference to common culture and, increasingly, ease of travel.
But if we’re the prime destination for U.S. food exports, and if the Americans approve cloned animal products, we’re bound to find them on our dinner plates, too. Volume aside, our menus aren’t radically different. There’s no reason to think cloned meat isn’t headed our way.
Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.