Cloned Cows in Food-chain: Where’s the Beef?

One story in the press this week that had me frustrated was coverage of the revelation that two cows born from a cloned parent had their beef enter the UK human food-chain.

The tone of all the coverage was outrage.  None of the stories went into depth about why we should be ‘outraged’ suggesting it is self-evident.  To me it was not.  That left me feeling a bit thick.  In my simple northern mind if you have a cow you would be happy to eat and you make a healthy clone then you should be happy to eat that too.  Probably 90% of the plant based food I have eaten in my entire life has been cloned and that seems to have caused me no harm and nobody seems to have lost sleep.  So is it different with mammals?

Well, the US Food and Drug Agency (FDA) has looked at the issue in some depth since 2007, they concluded that they could find no difference between healthy cloned animals and genetically similar animals produced by normal reproduction. (see here for the summary).  So what is the objection? After a bit of Googling it seems to boil down to:

a)  Animal welfare:  the evidence is that cloned animals currently have an increased chance of birth defects.

b) General Objections to bigger/more cattle:  Cows, particularly healthy big ones, eat a load of grain/grass to grow.  In a world of limited (and diminishing) agricultural space you could feed more humans if instead of growing food for cows and then eating the cow you simply grew food for humans.

c) The absence of any evidence that something is a danger is not the same as evidence of it being safe.

Now remember the trigger for the outrage is supposed to be that this beef has entered the food chain.  Argument ‘A’ is an argument against cloning full stop.  Argument B is an argument against eating cows full stop.  Argument C, whilst true, is also a crazy argument against consuming anything ever, full stop.  All three are interesting debates in themselves but at best they are only tangently related to concerns about meat entering the food chain.

The truth is that the press know that ‘Outrage’ sells more than ‘Mild Debate’.   The media feeds off the frenzy of scare stories and they can manufacture more column inches in debate through their faux ‘outrage’.   It is self-serving waffle.   I guess we just have to accept that this is how the media works and all put on our own critical thinking hats whenever these stories break.  What worries me is that whilst in politics newspapers have their party political biases and you know that stories ‘spun’ sensationally in one paper will be counterbalanced with the opposite view in other mainstream papers – with science it increasingly seems to me that all UK papers (even so-called qualities such as the FT, Telegraph, Times and Guardian) are happy to run with the sensationalist spin or headline from the view point of the Luddite.    It sells papers.  Without the enlightened counter-balance though I really fear that the public is increasingly being pushed into being sceptical of and turning against scientific advance.  That’s dangerous.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Cloned Cows in Food-chain: Where’s the Beef?

  1. I have to say I completely agree with you Guy. When this story broke I was quite bemused by all the fuss the media were making over the meat being cloned. At first I put it down to my having just some very different intuitions than other people, but clearly it is further than that. The media are creating a hyper-sensitive society where we are obsessed with even the mere possibility of some negative side effects, whether justified or not.

    However, I think there is a validity to objection here in that the cloned meat was clearly not publicised as such, and so it was a form of deception, as certain people may not want to eat cloned meat, whether for ethical or religious reasons or otherwise. Cloned meat should be publicised as such, not because of any medical objections (until evidence proves otherwise), but to allow the consumer to make an informed choice.

  2. Dmitri

    Interesting post Guy, thanks. Clearly, since the “outrage” is about cloned meat getting in to the food chain, rather than about whether animals should be cloned at all, I guess you are right that the main objection can only be that cloned meat is somehow unsafe. Yet it is unclear why such an assumption should be made, nor was any evidence presented to support this. Indeed, this was not even explicitly stated, it was just assumed that all the public would approach this subject from the same angle – i.e. that cloned meat is dangerous.

    With regards to the reasons you propose for why people might oppose cloned food, they are not very convincing:

    (a) It may be that cloned animals may have greater rates of birth defects, but does this matter? If they are very serious defects, the animal will probably be put down – which after all was all that was destined to happen to it anyway. If the defect is minor, e.g. cosmetic, or mental retardation – will an animal notice or care about this, if it does not cause pain?

    (b) Firstly cloning cows does not imply that the number or mass of cows in the world would increase necessarily and secondly might cloned animals not in fact be more efficient? Let’s say you double the meat on an animal, but the mass of the brain, bones, guts etc (i.e. all the parts we do not eat usually) would probably not have increased by the same rate. So it may be you get more meat in proportion to feed input than from conventional cows.

    (c) The old chestnut that it may not have been proven unsafe, but that does not mean it is safe. Interestingly, the same people who make this arguement probably then rush off to get their herbal medicines and what not… products hardly proven safe.

    Sorry if I’ve gone off topic, but good post!

  3. I completely agree with this. Do people think cloned cows eat radioactive grass or something?

    A cloned cow is made from the same proteins as a non-cloned cow. It is certainly an ethics/animal welfare issue, but has absolutely no bearing on human health.

    I think the only explanation for the full on attempt to whip up hysteria by our newspapers is that it is the “silly season” and there was not much else happening.

  4. stephenwan91

    By the way Guy, The Daily Soapbox is starting up its own political podcast, and we were wondering if you would be interested to appear on at some point? If so, do email me at stephenwan91@gmail.com

    Many thanks,
    Stephen

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