Ethics, the FDA, and Cloned Meat

Sorry for the boring title. “Clone Appetit” and “Bring in the Clones!” were already taken.

So, the big story: the Food & Drug Administration in the U.S. has approved the sale of meat and milk from cloned animals.

See the NY Times story here: F.D.A. Says Food From Cloned Animals Is Safe

After years of debate, the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday declared that food from cloned animals and their progeny is safe to eat, clearing the way for milk and meat derived from genetic copies of prized dairy cows, steers and hogs to be sold at the grocery store.

The decision was hailed by cloning companies and some farmers, who have been pushing for government approval in hopes of turning cloning into a routine agricultural tool. Because clones are costly, it is their offspring that are most likely to be used for producing milk, hamburgers or pork chops, while the clones themselves are reserved for breeding.

Not only will producers be permitted to sell food derived from clones; when they do so, they will not be required to label it as such.

Those of you who have read my stuff on Genetically Modified foods may not find much new in my comments here. I think GM foods are pretty benign, and cloned foods even more so. Once you know that I’ve defended the right of companies to sell, without labelling, GM foods, you can guess what I think their obligations are (or are not) regarding cloned foods.

But predictably, not everyone is thrilled with the FDA’s new decision. “If you have moral objections to a particular food, or ethical objections to them, FDA’s saying, ‘Tough, you’ve got to eat it,'” said Carol Tucker-Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America (As quoted by Wired News.)

Well, not really. The FDA is simply saying they won’t force food producers to give you information that isn’t related to the healthiness of their products.

I don’t know what particular moral objections Ms. Tucker-Foreman has in mind, but it’s hard to imagine (and yes I’ve tried) any objections that are sufficiently weighty to imply serious and costly obligations for food companies. But really, the FDA’s concern is safety. And if the FDA (and European regulators) have said cloned food is safe, that’s a pretty good start. On the other hand, there’s safe and there’s safe. Safe is relative, right? So, just how safe is food derived from clones? Well, according to Stephen Sundlof, director of the F.D.A. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, (as quoted by the NYT), “It is beyond our imagination to even have a theory for why the food is unsafe.” In other words, cloned food isn’t just safe ‘as far as we know.’ It’s safe as far as the relevant experts can even imagine.

Now saying that regulators and others are convinced that the food is safe is not the same as saying consumers will be convinced. And surely that matters, somehow. On this point, see renowned Bioethicist Art Caplan’s commentary over at MSNBC: Don’t ask, don’t tell is bad policy for cloned food.

Cloning has gotten a bad rap in American society. It is the best means for scaring the daylights out of the American public short of making a movie or TV show about terrorism. We all know what clones do — at least on the big screen. They are monsters, fiends, reincarnated zombies, drones. Eat them? Hell you would not even want one standing in a field near you. No wonder why your poor deli manager is tied up in knots trying to figure out what to say when the day comes when customers ask if any of the products for sale are made from clones.
All of this fear-mongering about clones has made Americans forget that cloning is nothing more than artificially creating twins. It has made us forget that every drop of wine we drink comes from cloned grapes. It has made us ignore the fact that if you want to worry about what you are eating, you’d be better off wondering if the FDA has enough inspectors at meat plants looking for salmonella and E. coli.

Caplan is a smart guy, who is right more often than he’s wrong. Oddly, this particular commentary offers the industry pragmatic advice, rather than ethical argumentation. Caplan argues that the industry would be unwise not to label its cloned foods; he stops short of saying it would be unethical not to label it, though I suppose you could read that into what he says.

Transparency is not always the value that is used to sell food, but in this case safety is not enough. The consumer will have the last word.

Caplan may, of course, be right in claiming that it’s foolish for food producers not to label. But (as I’ve said before) we should never confuse advice about what would be smart for someone to do with advice about what they’re ethically justified in doing. Maybe I should call it “MacDonald’s Iron Rule of Business Ethics:” Never offer management advice to companies that don’t seem to need it, when you’re really in the business of giving ethical advice.

Is it ethically OK to sell cloned food without labelling it? I don’t see why not. Is it wise to do so? I guess we’ll see!

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