Monday, April 02, 2007

Meat Or Its Match? Consumers Want And Deserve Labels


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last month that the agency will likely approve the sale of cloned foods this year. This despite widespread scientific concern about the risks of food from cloned animals, as well as troubling ethical questions that the cloning process brings. And oh, yes, there's this to bear in mind: a considerable majority of Americans don't trust or want meat or milk from cloned animals, either: Gallup Polls report more than 65 percent of Americans have moral issues with cloning animals, and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology reports a similar percentage of Americans who say they would not buy cloned milk, even if it received FDA approval.

What, in the opinion of this label-reading mother and resident Purchasing Agent, is the most troubling thing here? As matters now stand, the FDA will not require that food from cloned animals or their progeny be labeled as such. That's right: if and when clone-derived meat and milk land in your supermarket cases, you the consumer will be unable to choose for yourself if you want to eat it. Was it live or is it Memorex? Only the biotech barons know for sure!

Enter Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who introduced Senate Bill S.414, the Cloned Food Labeling Act, and U.S. House Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who shortly thereafter introduced an identical bill, H.R. 992 in the House. I'll discuss a few of the issues surrounding clone-derived meat in a moment, but right now I'd like to direct you to urge your government to support this important consumer legislation.

You can contact your congresspeople very conveniently via The Center For Food Safety.

You can (and should!) submit your comments directly to the FDA; simply click the Docket Search link and enter the docket number 2003N-0573 to bring up the topic Draft Animal Cloning Risk Assessment; Proposed Risk Management Plan; Draft Guidance for Industry. Please act quickly, though; comments will be closed after today (4/2).

Now. Let's talk about cloning, genetically modified organisms, biotech industries, and what they all mean in the larger context of how they affect our food chain, and our health as individuals and as a species.

Cloning in this context is defined as:

...a technology used to generate an animal that has the same nuclear DNA as another currently or previously existing animal. Dolly the sheep was created by reproductive cloning technology. In a process called "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (SCNT), scientists transfer genetic material from the nucleus of a donor adult cell to an egg whose nucleus, and thus its genetic material, has been removed. The reconstructed egg containing the DNA from a donor cell must be treated with chemicals or electric current in order to stimulate cell division. Once the cloned embryo reaches a suitable stage, it is transferred to the uterus of a female host where it continues to develop until birth.

As I read through their various industry newsletters, it became increasingly obvious that the fondest dream of the biotech giants has us all grilling the various lab-children of their relatively new (barely 10-years-old) animal cloning technology and serving them up with platefuls of hot, buttered, genetically modified corn. The term "spare ribs" takes on new and weird meaning.

And, as usual, they think we're stupid. For example, here's what BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization) President and CEO Jim Greenwood says about Senator Mikulski's legislation:

“Labels that are misleading to consumers are unlawful. To require the labeling of foods that are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods – as Sen. Mikulski’s proposal does – would mislead consumers by falsely implying differences where none exist. It also risks diverting attention from important safety and nutritional information.”

The FDA has found that milk and meat products from cloned livestock and their offspring is equivalent to that from conventionally bred animals.

Greenwood continued, “Labeling standards are science-based in order to give consumers meaningful information about the foods that they buy and eat. Today, there are no known food products from cloned animals or their offspring in the marketplace. The biotechnology industry has abided by a request from the FDA to withhold sales of food products from animal clones and their offspring in the market. The likelihood that consumers will eat products from an animal clone is small; animal clones will be primarily used as breeding stock in order to improve the health and quality of animals used for food production. Rather, meat and milk products in the marketplace will come from the offspring of cloned animals. These offspring would be bred through conventional breeding techniques and would not themselves be clones.”

Got that?

Labels that are misleading are unlawful.


Translation: We say the public isn't qualified to make its own choices and decide whether or not to eat cloned meat, therefore any label that helps them to do just that is unlawful.

It also risks diverting attention from important safety and nutritional information.

Translation: We know the moment you see the word CLONE, you'll be putting the package back in the case and moving on. So we don't want you to see the word CLONE because it might distract you from important data like how much saturated fat is in the meat...um, nevermind.

Labeling standards are science-based in order to give consumers meaningful information.

Translation: We will tell you only what we think you need to know. Oh, and as for other stuff on labels that isn't exactly science-based but nonetheless helps you make a consumer choice--I'm thinking along the lines of Extra-chunky, Homestyle, Made in the USA, Creamier Than Ever!, New And Improved Flavor, etc.--well, we're talking about food regulations and the FDA. Surely you didn't expect consistency?

Today, there are no known food products from cloned animals or their offspring in the marketplace. The biotechnology industry has abided by a request from the FDA to withhold sales of food products from animal clones and their offspring in the market.

Translation: Look, give us a break--we've spent all this money developing FrankenCows, and we've been nice enough to wait until the responsible folks at the FDA greenlighted them, so to speak, before unleashing them into your grocery stores.

The likelihood that consumers will eat products from an animal clone is small; animal clones will be primarily used as breeding stock in order to improve the health and quality of animals used for food production. Rather, meat and milk products in the marketplace will come from the offspring of cloned animals.

Translation: See? You won't be eating FrankenCow, you'll be eating Son of FrankenCow! Nothing to worry about, nothing to see here, move along.

If you're like me, you want the science--the nuts and bolts--of this story. In this case, the tale is long and heavy on data, but it's rendered quite readable (and in this geek's opinion, utterly fascinating) by Barry Commoner, senior scientist at the Center for Biology of Natural Systems at Queen's College, City University of New York and director of the Critical Genetics Project. Writing for Harpers in 2002 (available by subscription), which essay Unraveling the DNA Myth: The Spurious Foundation of Genetic Engineering is reprinted here (scroll down), Commoner notes:

Our leading scientists and scientific entrepreneurs (two labels that are increasingly interchangeable) assure us that these feats of technological prowess, though marvelous and complex, are nonetheless safe and reliable. We are told that everything is under control. Conveniently ignored, forgotten, or in some instances simply suppressed are the caveats, the fine print, the flaws and spontaneous abortions. Most clones exhibit developmental failure before or soon after birth, and even apparently normal clones often suffer from kidney or brain malformations. ANDi, perversely, has failed to glow like a jellyfish. Genetically modified pigs have a high incidence of gastric ulcers, arthritis, cardiomegaly (enlarged heart), dermatitis, and renal disease. Despite the biotechnology industry's assurances that genetically engineered soybeans have been altered only by the presence of the alien gene, as a matter of fact the plant's own genetic system has been unwittingly altered as well, with potentially dangerous consequences. The list of malfunctions gets little notice; biotechnology companies are not in the habit of publicizing studies that question the efficacy of their miraculous products or suggest the presence of a serpent in the biotech garden.

Finally, here's what Consumer's Union has to say, in their letter to Senator Mikulski:

Consumers Union feels strongly that consumers have a right to know if the meat and milk they are consuming comes from cloned animals, and therefore we support your bill to insure that all food that comes from cloned animals be labeled as such.

Your bill, which addresses labeling of meat and dairy products sold in all retail supermarkets and restaurants, will include not only cloned animal products, but also any of its “progeny,” because cloned animals may be used to breed other animals. We also support the imposition of civil penalties on distributors if this labeling requirement is violated. It is also important that the responsibility for enforcement of this labeling requirement should fall on both the FDA and the Department of Agriculture.

CU believes that the FDA’s draft risk assessment on the safety of meat and milk from cloned animals was based on only very limited data, and that the safety of cloned products is of too great import to American consumers to be decided on the basis of just a few industry studies. We agree with another group of Senators who wrote to the FDA in October expressing concerns about consumption of cloned animal products and recommending that a thorough and thoughtful review of the science and public participation in the process is necessary before any government agency gives its stamp of approval.

The labeling requirement is also respectful of those consumers who actively oppose cloning - an ABC News poll found that almost 60 percent of Americans think it should be illegal to clone animals. A poll by the International Food Information Council found that a similar percentage would not buy cloned milk or meat even if FDA said it was safe.
It is high time the FDA, who work for us, and the biotech and agriculture industries--who want us to buy their products--listened to the American consumer.

We don't trust you.

Not on this issue; not yet. Forgive us our skepticism, but we're still reeling from the effects of such FDA-approved goodies as Vioxx, Celebrex, DDT, and Thalidomide. We worry about any yet-undiscovered Heckuva Job _____'s still out there, fiddling around with policy to favor Big Business, implementing agendas instead of protecting the American People. That sort of thing.

If cloned livestock is to be permitted at all, we want it labeled, please. Tell us if the product comes from a cloned animal or its offspring.

If there is nothing untoward here, if the biotech industry is so convinced that several more years of research will confirm that there is really is nothing to see--that there is nothing unusual about the contents of FrankenCow's flesh and cellular biology that would distinguish it from a "conventionally bred cow", then why is the industry afraid of a simple label?

If the distinction means nothing, they'll have plenty of customers, right?

(H/T Shaker Charles Bowman)

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