Meat in point

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 March, 2009, 12:00am

Imagine eating the same steak year in year out. We're not talking about the same breed of cow, or cows from one unbroken lineage (something of an obsession for certain Japanese when it comes to Kobe beef, which is sometimes served with the cow's birth certificate on display). The impending adoption of cloning in mainstream agribusiness opens up the possibility that all tenderloin medallions in your gastronomic future will be genetically identical.

In January, researchers at Japan's Kinki University announced they had resurrected the ancestral bull of a high-end Hida-gyu brand of beef. Yasufuku, the bull, died 16 years ago and his testicles were kept frozen until 2007, when the researchers started to clone four calves from his genetic material, though one died before reaching adulthood. Researchers said they planned to study the gene and protein structures that make tastier beef, rather than apply such elements to food production, according to Agence France-Presse. A couple of weeks later, Reuters reported that Japan's health ministry had announced that cloned animals are safe to eat. The Food Safety Commission is expected to make a further ruling in the coming months.

Cloning of mammals has come a long way since the 1996 birth of Dolly the sheep in Scotland but the first push to use this technology in food production came from the United States. In 2003, the Federal Department of Agriculture assessed that meat and dairy products from cloned animals were safe for human consumption. The news was met with an overwhelmingly negative response from the public and, in the same year, there was a voluntary industry ban on using cloned animals in food production. However, this informal ban did not stop the development of laboratories providing commercial cloning services on a small scale.

Companies such as ViaGen and Trans Ova Genetics typically charge about US$15,000 to clone a bull and US$3,000 for a pig and reportedly churn out 150 clones annually.

With the release of its final risk assessment on the issue in January last year, the FDA cleared the way for clones to enter the food supply, albeit pending a transition period. However, products from the offspring of clones were granted immediate release into the market.

It is commonly known that clones are more likely to die in utero or shortly after birth and to have birth defects. But according to a 2006 study commissioned by the FDA, clones that survive into adolescence are as healthy as animals born naturally.

Stephen Sundlof, director of the US Centre for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration stated that the final assessment was based on dozens of studies that found that meat and dairy products from clones were 'virtually indistinguishable' from what is available in stores and restaurants.

Perhaps the most immediate concern for consumers worldwide is whether they will be able to determine whether the meat they are buying is cloned or not. As of now, the FDA has no plans to mandate special labelling; Sundlof states, 'the FDA does not require labelling if there is no food safety issue.'

In response to consumer concerns, cloning firms have pledged to roll out a voluntary tracking programme and the food industry is looking into labelling alternatives but, suffice to say, the US government is not currently prepared to regulate any of this, or issue guidelines on exporting the products. For all we know, we might already be chewing on replica beef.

It may well be that cloned meat is more consistently tasty than the naturally raised stuff - environmental and long-term health issues notwithstanding - but isn't it our right to decide whether we buy it - the steak and the argument - or not?