Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cloned Food - "Waiter, my burger tastes like test tube."

Choices, Choices.

Most risks usually involve tradeoffs. We like dessert and fried food so we take the risk of being overweight. We enjoy that nice healthy tan so we're willing to run the risk of skin cancer. We lead busy lives, so we use our cell phones when we drive and dismiss the danger of distracted driving.

But those are all matters of choice. Now comes a new risk-risk tradeoff that could be in our stores soon, over which we might not have any choice at all. We may soon have milk or meat from cattle, pigs, or goats which are clones, copies of the original animal but conceived in the lab, not the uterus. The farmer just has to identify the animals with the traits that produce more meat or richer milk, and copy them, from the DNA up. Those breed stock animals will be used to generate offspring with the superior traits. So what’ll it be, diner? Beef that started out the old fashioned way, or beef from descendants of a cow that never knew its mother...never HAD a mother?

The FDA says this is safe. They studied cloned animals for 6 years before recently declaring that meat and milk from cow A is equivalent to meat and milk from Cow B. But the question of safety isn't just one of lab analysis. Safety is a matter of how we feel. And a Pew Institute study found that 43% of Americans feel that cloned food is unsafe (64% aren't sure). Said one opponent of cloned animal products to the FDA “I would rather pay more for natural processed food (than) have what was cooked up in some science lab.” So show me the company that wants to be the first to bring such products to market.

The problem is, the FDA has not required food produced this way to carry some sort of label. This is just what industry wanted. But it's a big mistake.

Remember, we're less afraid of risks when we have some choice. A risk we take on our own feels less frightening that one which is imposed. No label = No choice. The possibility that there may be something different about one gallon of milk compared to the next, but we won’t know it because the difference won’t be on the label, makes many of us leery. The FDA assures us that cloned product is equivalent to what we eat now. But the Pew survey found that 64% of us aren’t sure, so we want to be able to make that choice ourselves. As the Consumer Federation of America complained, "The products will not be labeled as such and American consumers will have no way to avoid consuming them."

A label to give us choice makes sense, for the consumer and the for the food industry. By giving people choice - good for consumers - labeling will reduce opposition to cloned food products, probably enough to allow them to come to market - good for the food industry. Want proof that this works? Concern in Europe about genetically modified foods went down (not away, but down) after labels appeared telling consumers which foods contained GM products. In the U.S., producers are loathe to use irradiation to sanitize food - also safe and legal - for fear that consumers won’t buy something labeled as irradiated. Yet in test markets where such products have been sold, bearing a label that identifies the food as having been treated with radiation to kill germs, consumers buy these products, in part, they say, because the label lets them choose for themselves.

Will labeling give consumers all the facts they need to make a fully rational information-based choice? Of course not. The GM food label doesn’t. The irradiated food label doesn’t. A label that says something general like “Contains products from cloned animals” is not exactly full disclosure. But it’s enough. Enough to say to the consuming public that our government acknowledges our concerns and respects that we should have the final say about what we eat.

Notwithstanding the science that it’s safe, this stuff is scary to some. The FDA needs to look beyond the science of animal biology to the psychological study of risk perception, which explains why our very real fears often don't match what scientists say are the facts. Requiring a label on food from cloned animals or their offspring could go a long way toward allaying consumer concerns, and allow a food technology that promises more, healthier, and cheaper food to move forward, without being forced down anyone’s throat.