The biggest news of the week was the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) announcement that clones from cattle, swine and goats are safe for human consumption. It was of little surprise, however, as everyone knew FDA would eventually have to stamp its approval to cloned products because the science is so clear.
The final risk assessment takes nearly 1,000 pages to say that the product reflects what cloning is -- the meat is not only comparable to non-cloned animals, it's impossible to even differentiate cloned product from non-cloned product.
FDA also issued some convoluted rules on labeling. As there is no difference between cloned and non-cloned products, the agency prohibited regulators from requiring labeling. But while you can't require cloned product to be labeled as such, it's perfectly acceptable to declare your product to be clone-free.
No, the scientific outcome was never in question. But the approval that really matters is that of consumers. And that's a totally different matter.
Consumers have scientific, ethical and even moral questions about cloning. Activist groups have likened the science to Frankenstein and the creation of a monster in our food-production system. They've been so successful that new technologies that can improve product safety and quality, or even lower costs, are almost universally received with a suspect eye these days.
"Corporate" agriculture, whatever that truly means, has also been looked at as generally harmful, from either an environmental, food safety, or cultural standpoint. Cloning is just another science that enters into this environment where anything new is considered to be bad.
Understandably, almost as quickly as the announcement that product from cloned animals was safe came the industry announcements from companies like Tyson and Smithfield that they would buy product from cloned animals at this point. Like USDA and FDA, these firms have no concerns about safety, but do have great concerns about perception.
And that is a very valid concern. Everyone remembers the backlash against genetically modified grains; some countries still will not allow imports of such products. One particularly poignant example is that of the Third-World ruler who refused donations of grain to feed his starving populace a few years ago because the products were genetically modified. In today's world, scientific breakthroughs not only must be scientifically valid, but they must be consumer accepted. Cloning has yet to clear that second hurdle.
Sadly, such technologies as cloning could be very valuable to the industry from a genetic-improvement standpoint, etc., but the economic impact is minimal. It's a technology that won't be widely used; as such, the economic incentive to wage a public relations campaign with consumers is simply not there. Nor would the task be easy with activist groups working against the technology since the very beginning.
Probably the real question about cloning has nothing to do with the technology. Rather, it's a question of how the industry will adopt new technologies in the future to ensure they're viable from a consumer acceptance standpoint.