Are Clones In The Food Supply Really A Good Idea?

Feb. 19, 2008
The food industry should fund a forum to assess the advisability of clones in the food supply.

People paint with broad brushes. When the Twin Towers came down in New York, Al-Qaeda was to blame, but Muslims all over became suspect. If a couple of baseball record-setters of the past 10 years have used steroids, probably all star players have. When two ingredient suppliers spiked their wheat gluten with a pinch of melamine, the whole Chinese food industry got a black eye.

So when the subject of cloned animals in the food supply comes up, the bad rap won’t fall on genetic researchers in Scotland, the nascent cloning “industry” or even near-sighted/short sighted scientists at the FDA.

It will be the food industry at large. The same food industry that makes children obese, that allowed several lapses in food safety last year, that starred in the movie “Super Size Me.”

Even after a fair amount of reading about the issue of cloned animals in the food supply, I don’t know what conclusion to come to. But I do know this: Now is not the time to even hypothesize about cloned animals as food. That is, unless you’re on the organic side of the food industry. In that case, you’re being handed the greatest marketing opportunity of your career.

This has nothing to do with science or risk assessment. In many ways, cloning sounds more palatable than genetic modification, in which DNA is altered, added or deleted. Essentially, we’re talking about identical twins, just born at different times. And arguing that the economics of cloning -- $20,000 per cow – will keep clones out of the food supply will not win any hearts and minds.

We’ve just gone through one of the worst years for food safety -- from intentionally spiked wheat gluten to E. coli in hamburgers and produce to the inevitability of bird flu, according to TV newsmagazines. Consumer confidence in the American food supply is low, according to numerous surveys, so we don’t need to take it any lower. 

Funny coincidence, too, that our cover story this month is about the safety of foreign-sourced ingredients. With maybe half a million food or ingredient suppliers in China, it only took two companies adding a dash of melamine to wheat gluten to blackball the entire Chinese food industry.

How many consumers would buy products that proclaim: contains ingredients from China? Instead, it becomes your responsibility. Get your ingredients from wherever, make sure they’re safe and you never have to tell where they’re from. But if something goes wrong, it won’t be some unpronounceable company in China taking the hit; it will be you and your brand.

That’s a responsibility American food companies always have borne, playing watchdog for ingredients from foreign as well as domestic suppliers. But I don’t think the responsibility for cloned foods is one you want to bear. At least not for a long time.

So I offer two suggestions.

Some mouthpiece for the food industry needs to officially denounce clones in the food supply, much the way the Organic Trade Assn. did, but on behalf of the whole food industry. Do it quickly, authoritatively, even dispassionately, but acknowledging that all the good science in the world cannot force consumers to embrace the subject. And it is the consumer who we serve. Maybe it’s a task for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn.

Second, the food industry should establish its own body to research and facilitate dialogue on this subject. You can’t look at just the science in the absence of human emotion, because food is not a subject that can be detached from emotion.

Actually, such a group just passed out of existence. The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology for six years provided such a forum for the contentious and often passionate debate on policy regarding agricultural biotech products in the U.S. Its funding, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, ended in mid-2007, but the need for such an independent effort keeps growing.

As I understood it, the Pew Initiative engaged both sides of the biotech debate, providing a structured forum and information that was credible and fair to all sides -- certainly preferable to the normal hand grenade-lobbing of groups such as Center for Science in the Public Interest.

When it comes to food, it’s not all about the science. Every food company marketer out there strives for the emotional connection people make with food. It’s time the industry’s leaders and policy makers did, too.

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