Produce of the Week - Food Labeling
sponsored by Coleman Farms
A few months ago I noticed a bottle of milk in the dairy case with a bubble on the label saying "From cows not treated with rBST*", the asterisk referring to "No significant difference has been observed between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows." Why the disclaimer, I wondered. Isn't it enough for the interested consumer to know that the cows weren't given synthetic growth hormone to increase their milk output? You don't suppose, I thought, that the government ordered the disclaimer? Yes, we find out incidentally in this article about cloned livestock and labeling: the FDA had strongly objected to any mention on milk labels of (not using) rBST, and only allowed it subject to inclusion of the disclaimer. The FDA position on labeling food from cloned animals is similar: the product, they claim, is chemically indistinguishable from normal product, so there is no health risk possible and an FDA-imposed label is therefore unwarranted. They may allow, however, a 'clone-free' label, similar to the 'rBST-free' one.
One argument against labeling cloned product (or, alternatively, clone-free product) is that there is currently no requirement for livestock product labels to include 'details about how these animals were conceived', so why should cloned product be any different? This is surely somewhat disingenuous: ordinary livestock is conceived by methods any attentive high school biology student is familiar with, in the abstract or otherwise. Artificial insemination is the only technique used that differs from simply leaving an appropriate pair of animals alone together, and this involves very minor departures from Nature's way, compared to, say, human in vitro fertilization and implantation. Cloning, by contrast, doesn't even involve conception in any accepted sense of the word. Instead, the nucleus is removed from a cell taken from the animal to be cloned, stimulated in various ways to reset its genes to 'divide and diversify' rather than 'replicate', put inside an ovum which has had its genetic material removed, and this is implanted in a female host. While the result is a new individual, it's difficult to say a new 'life' has been created, since the process is more like the reproduction of yeast by division, than like sexual reproduction.
The predisposition to accept cloned livestock as equivalent to naturally reproduced livestock is likely based on the genetic equivalence of the clone to the (naturally reproduced) donor of the cell nucleus it originated from. But this doesn't make the animals identical. Physically and physiologically the clone is likely to differ from the donor because, though genetically (barring the odd mutation) identical, their genes may express differently, since the resetting of the genes that starts clonal cell division is almost surely different from the settings in a newly fertilized ovum. There has been laboratory evidence of this in clones which, though developing normally, present symptoms later on such as premature ageing and proneness to certain diseases.
But even if physically equivalent in every way, a clone is not the same as a product of natural reproduction, precisely because, like rBST-induced milk, it's not natural. To some people - those developing and marketing clones, and those supporting them, for example - this is a non-issue, since they pretend that cloning is just another means of reproduction. To many other people, it's a non-issue since, like, who cares? But some people, I'd say a fair number of people, do care. It's a pretty safe bet than anyone buying organic milk or free-range eggs doesn't want to buy milk or eggs from cloned animals, or even from descendents of cloned animals. Their motives may be complex, they may be unclear, they may even be considered by some to be laughable. Does that mean these people should be deprived of exercising a choice that is significant to them by a government refusing to allow different products to be distinguished by a label?
One concern that the FDA dismisses has to do with the interbreeding of cloned animals with naturally bred ones. The FDA seems to dismiss this because they consider it impossible to or too expensive to trace the offspring of cloned animals. Anyone who's familiar with breeding dogs or racehorses, or even, I think, dairy cows, would double up laughing to hear this. The technology for this tracking is pretty well understood - it's called 'geneology'- and it's been implemented for a very long time tracking both human and livestock (and plant, and...) gene lines. Of course, it's not free: data entry and data management might add fifty cents to the cost of an animal, but it could prove money very well spent if it turns out that cloned animals aren't as 'natural' as the manufacturers claim, and cross breeds prove sterile, or especially susceptible to certain diseases, or unproductive, ten or fifteen years hence.
These decisions, if that's what they are, concerning labeling and tracking, have been based on partial information. The techniques of animal cloning involve a lot of proprietary information which its owners are not about to make known to the FDA or anyone else. Moreover, animal cloning is a brand new field which is bound to develop rapidly and, again, largely out of the public domain. So the FDA, on the basis of having been told something about present techniques has made a judgement which covers the eventual product of future cloning techniques, which it hasn't a clue about. Just as an example, cloning involves manipulating the genetic material of the donor or parent animal. Well, since you're in there anyway, why not manipulate the odd gene here and there, too? If a cloned animal is just like a natural one, how would this little step make it any different?
Anyone who's familiar with the history of BSE, or 'mad cow disease', in Britain, has seen all this before. Sure, the Ministry of Agriculture said, bovines are herbivores, but it's such a shame to waste these carcasses of sheep that dropped dead, and the protein will be good for the cows, so it's ok to make them into animal feed, and we've issued strict regulations on doing this. But, what's this with the cows brains turning to jelly? Well, never mind, the meat and milk is identical to that of healthy cows, and I'll prove it, says the Minister of Agriculture, by making my subteen daughter eat a hamburger on national TV. No need to worry, and no need to label British beef, the consumer doesn't need to be able to choose. And then, a few years later, people started coming down with 'mad cow disease', experts notwithstanding. There's something adolescent in all this: the entrepreneurs and technologists swaggering about with their private knowledge, the bureaucrats pretending to understand what they don't, afraid that otherwise they'll be dropped from the social clique, and no one, ever, willing to admit there might be a possibility of error,
let alone to having made a mistake.
The FDA, and its sibling, the USDA, were established to regulate the production of consumables with a direct impact on consumer health; these agencies were intended to make sure that producers didn't put one over on the consumer. Lately, though, the FDA mission seems to have more to do with regulating the consumer's relationship to the product, to, as a speaker in the first article cited here says, simplify consumer choice by, essentially, supressing information and removing the possibility of informed choice, in order to, as the FDA spokesman says, help the 'stakeholders' get the product to market. What are we to make of this? "Fascist" is often used to describe a totalitarian or police-state policy; but there is nothing inherently totalitarian or violent about Fascism, which was proposed as a means of overcoming the wasteful friction between labor, capital and government, by arranging for these constituents of society to collaborate, each supporting the policies and activities of the other. This sort of collaboration seems to be the FDA approach to handling cloned livestock and, increasingly, also to drugs. The problems come when reality is too stupid to conform to the experts' understanding of it. The intial fix involves changing the flow of information: supress an inconvenient fact here, make up a fact there. It's a fairly short step from supressing facts to supressing people.
As this is a column on food, we do not suggest the notions discussed here are more generally applicable, to banking, say, or to foreign policy; neither are we obliged to print a disclaimer.