Hoover Daily Report

The Cloned Cow Has Left the Barn

via Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Benighted European politicians seem determined to discourage certain innovations in food technology even when the rest of the world stands as living—and eating—proof of their safety.

The European Parliament called in July for a ban on marketing foods derived from cloned animals and their offspring, and on Oct. 18 the European Commission proposed sweeping, temporary bans on animal cloning for food production. The proposal encompasses the use of cloned farm animals and the marketing of food from clones, and also create a system to trace imported genetic material such as semen and cloned embryos.

These proposals conflict with the expert opinions of the European Food Safety Authority, which has said repeatedly that with respect to food safety, there is no difference between milk and meat from conventionally bred animals and those obtained from clones and their offspring.

Assurances of food safety seem not to be sufficient, however. "Although no safety concerns have been identified so far with meat produced from cloned animals, this technique raises serious issues about animal welfare, reduction of biodiversity, as well as ethical concerns," said French Parliamentarian Corinne Lepage in July.

Rubbish. After six years of deliberation, in January 2008 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally—and rightly—concluded that food from cloned animals is safe, raises no environmental or other concerns, and may appropriately be sold and consumed. Evaluations in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have come to the same conclusion about safety and other factors. These decisions were based on voluminous and persuasive scientific data.

But here's the clincher: It seems to have completely escaped the European politicians prattling about issues like animal welfare, biodiversity and ethics that cloning technology of one sort or another is already widely applied to a variety of foods that Europeans and American have consumed routinely and uncontroversially for years. As the journal Nature Biotechnology editorialized back in January 2007: "Many common fruits (e.g., pears, apples, oranges and lemons) and several vegetables (e.g., potatoes and truffles) are clones. And most of us have probably ingested meat and dairy products from livestock cloned by natural reproduction (monozygotic siblings), mechanical embryo-splitting or even nuclear transfer from an embryonic donor cell into an enucleated oocyte. Regulators traditionally paid scant attention to clones as a group—and rightly so."

The New York Times in July reported that "a handful of breeders in Switzerland, Britain and possibly other countries have imported semen and embryos from cloned animals or their progeny from the United States, seeking to create more consistently plump and productive livestock. And although no vendor has publicly acknowledged it, meat or dairy products originating from such techniques are believed to be already on supermarket shelves." This was confirmed by the U.K. Food Standards Agency in August.

Thus, European food producers and consumers have been voting with their feet. Given this experience and the assurances of safety from Europe's own food safety regulators, among others, what could be the reason for the political opposition to foods from cloned animals?

The most obvious explanation is trade considerations: Because most animal cloning is likely to be done in North America, Europeans would like to erect non-tariff trade (that is, regulatory) barriers to it and protect their own industries.

Europeans do also have some historical rationale for what appears to be gastronomic paranoia. From the ninth to the 19th centuries, Europe suffered a succession of epidemics caused by contamination of rye with ergot, a poisonous mold that produces the potent toxin ergotamine, the consumption of which induces hallucinations, bizarre behavior, and violent muscle twitching. Victims were at times believed to be possessed by evil spirits, and the unlucky ones were sometimes subjected to witch-hunts and persecution.

So dangerous food has, for much of Europe's history, been a realistic fear. But while medieval Europeans thought their rye was perfectly safe and blamed evil spirits for their maladies, today's Continentals have cloned food that actually is perfectly safe, and demonstrably so, but in too many circles is still treated as a kind of witchcraft. Maybe the problem is neither protectionism nor evil spirits, but a degree of ignorance that is inexplicable in the 21st century, and is depriving European consumers of tastier, more nutritious, and cheaper food.

Dr. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. His most recent book is "The Frankenfood Myth" (Praeger, 2004).