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In a stew about position on clones

The Baltimore Sun

I cringed when I read recently that the Food and Drug Administration had declared that food from cloned animals is safe to eat.

Could this mean I would have to struggle with yet another decision about what to put on my dinner table? Already I wrestle with whether my seafood is sustainable, my coffee is shade-grown and my beer is organic.

But the more I looked into this matter, the more I realized that I was not going to have to take any quick stance about whether to serve cloned burgers for supper. I have got plenty of time, years, before cloned burger meat appears in the groceries. And it might not show up at all.

Yes, the FDA decision earlier this month has eased the way for meat and milk from genetic copies of cows, steers and hogs to eventually be sold in stores. But nobody is in a rush. Right after the FDA said cloned meat was safe, the Department of Agriculture asked producers to keep cloned animals off the market for a while.

The clones themselves are unlikely to be sent to market. Those animals cost too much to produce. Their offspring are the ones who will probably be sent to packinghouses. Because breeding takes time, it will probably be at least three to five years before products from these offspring appear in groceries.

This timetable is premised on the notion that we milk drinkers and meat eaters will accept products from cloned animals. That seems to be an open question. The results of opinion polls on cloning, like those in this year's presidential primaries, indicate public opinion is all over the lot.

A survey conducted for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 66 percent of respondents were "uncomfortable" with animal cloning. A poll commissioned by the University of Maryland's Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture asked respondents what they would do if the FDA declared cloned meat and milk safe. About a third said they would buy the products, another third said they would think about it and the remaining third said they would never buy it.

Finally, a poll by the American Anti-Vivisection Society, an animal welfare group, found two-thirds of respondents disapproved of cloning animals for food.

The Europeans seem to be as divided on this matter as we are. No sooner did a European commission on food safety recently announce that consuming products from cloned animals was safe, than another European commission on ethics in science warned that cloning causes suffering among the animals.

About 20 percent of cloned cattle calves do not survive the first 24 hours after birth, and an additional 15 percent die before weaning, the European ethics commission said.

Proponents of cloning describe it as another agricultural tool, like artificial insemination - a practice that they note has, over time, found favor with the public.

The pro-cloning camp also contests the charge of animal suffering. "Cloning enhances animal well-being," the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a pro-cloning trade group based in Washington, states on its Web site. "In fact," the group contends, "clones are the 'rock stars' of the barnyard, and ... are treated like royalty."

Then there is the issue of genetic diversity, which an editorial in The New York Times cited in its anti-cloning stance. Cloning, the Times opined, "will shrink the gene pool on which agriculture rests ... and creates enormous health risks for a species."

So those who support cloning say that it is a tool that could produce meatier and healthier animals. Those against cloning say its creates health problems for the animals and ethical issues for society.

Some members of Congress, among them Maryland U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, have proposed legislation requiring labels on food from clones.

That makes sense to me. But I am not sure that we are going to get to that stage of the cloning tussle, at least not for a while.

Despite the to and fro on the scientific front, for me the deciding factor in this debate is sentiment. Cloning is out of sync with the mood of America.

Lately, the natural-food movement has become increasingly popular. From backyard gardeners growing heirloom tomatoes to chefs who know both the farmers and the animals that supply their restaurants, there has been an increasing emphasis on producing diverse, homegrown food.

Producing meat and milk from cloned animals flies in the face of that movement. Instead of diversity, it promotes selectivity. Instead of small farms, its scale of operation favors large commercial breeding operations.

Cloning is an artificial step in the food-producing process. Yes, we have taken such steps before. But we are not in the mood for this one.

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

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