The cow says ... clonnnnnnne.

7th Son listeners should get a kick out of this: After years of development, companies specializing in animal cloning -- cow cloning, specifically -- have received FDA approval to call their cloned critters "safe to eat," the AP reported recently. This proclamation comes after a six-year federal study. The agency has requested a temporary moratorium on the selling of cloned animals for food. The cloning, announcement and moratorium don't surprise me. What I find interesting are the regulatory loopholes detailed in the article. While some major food companies (such as dairy powerhouse Dean Foods Inc.) have wisely vowed to not sell products produced from cloned animals -- and at $20,000 per cloned cow, why would they? -- the FDA will permit the following:

  • The offspring of the cloned cattle can be bred, slaughtered and consumed for food
  • Cloning companies such as Viagen Inc. and Trans Ova Genetics intend to begin selling offspring of cloned cattle immediately
  • Food companies are not required to label products that hail from cloned animals, or their conventionally-bred offspring

Companies like Viagen Inc. have been pursuing cattle cloning for breeding purposes, the AP story says, "to produce a steady supply of cattle that are particularly tender, for instance, or for prize dairy cows."

As the article reports, it is well-known that current technologies create fatal birth defects in many cloned animals, and those that survive -- such as Dolly the sheep -- often have shorter life spans and health problems. According to the story, the FDA concluded that "cloned animals that are born healthy are no different than their non-cloned counterparts during their prime food-producing years," and also produce healthy offspring.

The agency conceded, however, that "it is not possible to draw any conclusions regarding the longevity of livestock clones or possible long-term health consequences" of those animals.

It should be noted that the FDA isn't alone in its findings; European regulators and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have filed similar reports recently.

Where does this leave the consumer? In the dark, it appears. Putting aside the ethical concerns of cloning and animal experimentation in general, the AP story suggests that we will never know if the burger we're munching has meat from either cloned animals (should the FDA moratorium be lifted), or their offspring.

Should this matter? In a world where a person's DNA can be patented and become corporate "property" -- and where, as Eric Schlosser brilliantly reported in Fast Food Nation, a pound of supermarket or fast food ground beef is the product of dozens, perhaps more than 100, cows -- does it make a difference?

I am a cloning advocate, on nearly every front. But not knowing if I'm eating beef from a cloned cow (or its offspring) gives me the heebie-jeebies -- if only because of the illnesses and lower life expectancy cloned animals experience. Imported produce is labeled as such; it'd be awfully nice to have a similar standard for this kind of meat ... at least for the next decade, or when this concept becomes more "marketable" and "mainstream" for consumers.

Make no mistake: animal cloning will become mainstream. Human cloning is on the horizon. But when it comes to this issue, I'm reminded of what the Beta Clones in 7th Son realize during their adventure: the world is not quite ready for it.

I'm curious to know what you think. Chime on in in the comments. (And thanks to Mae Breakall for sending me the link to the story!)

--J.C.