Cloned milk still a hard sell despite FDA approval

(Chicago Medill Reports, IL)

By Kristen Minogue


The FDA declared milk and meat from cloned cows safe a year ago, but Illinois dairies and consumers aren't buying it.


Consumer fears continue to ensure that milk from cloned animals stay out of grocery dairy cases in Chicago for the time being.

But even with consumer acceptance, expensive and inefficient technology will hold such products in check for the near future.

Dairy companies all across the country are adhering to a “voluntary moratorium” – a pledge to keep milk and meat from cloned cows, goats and pigs off the market – even after the Food and Drug Administration declared them safe for consumption in January 2008.

In a statement released the same day as the FDA’s assessment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked companies to continue following the optional ban recommended in 2001 in order to give the market time to adapt.

But the market remains just as rigid as ever and the moratorium shows no signs of disappearing.

Joan Behr of Foremost Farms, a dairy cooperative owned by roughly 2,700 dairy farmers in Illinois and surrounding states, said she believes the moratorium is in place to reassure consumers.

“We want to make sure that consumers are comfortable purchasing milk and dairy products,” she said. “We just don’t want consumers to be concerned [whether] the products they’re buying are safe and wholesome. I would say it’s a concern about the consumer and how they perceive new technologies.”

Consumer confidence remains a big concern because the FDA does not require labels on food products from cloned animals.

A number of food companies have flat out refused to sell any products from clones.

Northfield-based Kraft Foods defers to the FDA when it comes to the safety of milk from clones but isn't selling any products from cloned animals, according to Basil Maglaris, the company's senior manager in corporate affairs. Because Kraft is a consumer-oriented company, it needs to consider what its customers want - and the surveys say they don't want anything cloned, Maglaris said.


Other companies that have stated they will not accept milk from cloned cattle include Oberweis Dairy in North Aurora and Dean Foods, the nation's largest dairy producer.

But for many Illinois farmers, the issue is a moot point – the technology simply isn’t there.

“It’s not that high-tech yet,” said Lindsey White of Torkelson Cheese Company in Lena.

Cloning at its present stage is inefficient and not very profitable. The FDA assessment estimated of all cattle embryos transferred during the process, only 9 to 13 percent resulted in the birth of a live calf. And many cloned calves died in infancy, though the health of those that made it to adolescence was usually not that different from naturally bred cows, according to an FDA assessment.

The mortality rate has kept the cloned cow population low. Out of 9 million dairy cattle in the U.S., the USDA last year predicted only 600 were clones. Behr of Foremost Farms estimated the number was lower than 150.

The FDA has maintained that consuming meat or milk from cloned cows, pigs or goats isn’t any more dangerous than consuming products from conventional animals. Unlike genetic engineering – which alters the genetic makeup of an animal – a cloned cow is designed to be genetically identical to its predecessor.

Advocates say cloning allows farmers to select animals with superior characteristics – such as leaner meat or disease resistance – and create more animals that will pass the traits onto their offspring. Farmers have been selectively breeding animals for centuries, but the results of normal sexual reproduction are always unpredictable in terms of controlling genetic traits.

Milk from clones would have to meet the pasteurization standards and nutrition labeling requirements of conventional milk before it could be sold.

But some consumer advocacy groups, such as the Center for Food Safety, said the FDA didn’t do enough research into the health risks.

The FDA has cited several peer-reviewed studies examining the composition and safety of milk from cloned cows. But all other studies in the January 2008 assessment examining the safety of milk or meat came from a translated and severely abridged Japanese report, were performed on rats, or were undertaken by cloning companies. And the FDA had no data on milk or meat from clones’ offspring – which is much more likely to go on the market than products from clones themselves, according to the Center for Food Safety.

The FDA also assumed cloning wouldn’t add any new or dangerous elements into milk or meat in its assessment. This meant the agency only analyzed changes in nutrients (such as proteins and fatty acids) that were found in conventional milk – a mistake, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Behr said if consumers knew more about cloning, it could change the dynamic.

“Education would certainly play an important part in helping people understand what is cloning and what technologies could potentially be used to produce food products,” she said.

But for the moment, she said the market will drive the moratorium’s lifeline.

And the market follows the rules: Give the people what they want. 1-20-09



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