Editorial: Denying the right to choose

Published in The Hindu on February 5, 2007

A decade after the birth of the world’s first cloned animal, Dolly, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has come out with a draft risk assessment of the safety of consuming meat and milk from cloned animals such as cattle, swine, sheep, and goats. The key finding is that there is “no additional risk” from such products as compared with those derived from animals using other assisted reproductive technologies. With this clean chit, products of cloned animals can be expected to be available to consumers once the process of public comments and discussion is completed. The FDA approval should come as no surprise because as early as 2003 the regulatory body seemed convinced of the safety of such products. However, no decision could be taken at that time because the National Academy of Sciences, which was commissioned to study the safety of consuming products derived from cloned animals or their progeny, called for more data. Although the regulatory body decided to go with the premise that a “healthy animal is likely to produce safe food products,” it had no access to reports on the health status of live sheep clones and it had only “a relatively small” dataset for live goat clones. It also had no access to milk or meat composition data for sheep and goat clones.

According to the FDA, the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique used to produce clones by removing the nucleus of the egg and replacing it with DNA from the animal to be cloned is a “biologically imprecise and inefficient process” and also expensive but it provides farmers a way to make exact copies of their prized animals. The problem is that by refusing to make labeling of the products from cloned animals mandatory, the regulatory body will be denying consumers the right to know and to choose. This will be to follow the bad example set by the marketing of genetically modified food without labelling. While recent surveys suggest that a majority of American consumers are not in favour of food products from cloned animals, the FDA’s stand has been that the U.S. food safety system’s main concern is safety and not the means by which a product is produced, particularly when there is no difference in composition between the products. In the short term, the prohibitive cost of products derived from cloned animals is likely to limit the scope of their marketing. However, researchers are in hot pursuit of solutions to the key issues faced by the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique. The FDA’s approval and apparent sanctioning of non-transparency will be a big incentive to invest more time and money in resolving these issues.