How safe is safe enough? Cloned food and moral panics

Weeks prior to the FDA’s declaration that milk and meat from cloned animals was safe for human consumption, the Wall Street Journal observed that consumers have a history of being cautious in adopting technological innovations in food. Pasteurised milk took years to gain acceptance, and “some consumers and consumer groups still refer to genetically altered foods, like those that contain genetically modified corn or soybeans, as ‘Frankenfood’” (Zhang et al., 2008), more than a decade after such products appeared on the market.

Labels like “Frankenfood” are emotive, and imply that a wrong has been committed. Unfortunately, the debate often ends here, as moral claims – no matter how un-articulated – are frequently treated as privileged or even as trump-cards, in that if you find something morally objectionable, your objection is typically afforded respect regardless of its merit. In the case of cloned meat, I will argue that the majority of what we encounter as moral objections to the supply and consumption of cloned meat are not cogent. This is because they are largely motivated by a “yuk factor” – an emotive or aesthetic distaste – rather than through compelling reasoning.

There are sometimes good reasons for treating innovations with caution, and it is reasonable to argue that when making policy with regard to what we eat and how that food is produced, caution should be our default mode because of the possible harms we could incur or cause through producing and ingesting foodstuffs that threaten our health, or that threaten the welfare of the animals or plants that become our food. Then there are also other possible harms to consider, such as environmental damage or economic inefficiencies.

Much public debate around cloning in general, and now regarding cloned food, is unfortunately compromised by being cautious mostly in one respect: that of perceiving possible risks and harms, then filtering these through a unsophisticated conception of the “natural” in order to justify the notion that change and technological innovation, when applied to living beings, is something to be treated with suspicion. Our default assumption that “natural is good” leads us to embrace a confirmation bias whereby examples of the possible harms of cloning food are perceived to outweigh possible benefits. We are however not cautious in other respects – for my purposes, primarily in respect of being cautious with regard to our obligations to make sense, and to base policy on sound reasons rather than vague suspicions and paranoia.

Contrary to the prevailing sentiment, I argue that a more careful consideration of the ethical aspects of cloned food demonstrates that while we should perhaps justifiably be cautious in endorsing production and consumption of cloned food, this caution cannot be motivated by ethical concerns, as the ethical concerns involved are inconsequential, already tolerated in other situations or, in some cases, entirely spurious.

Generic moral objections to cloning

The most basic set of moral objections to cloned food can be described as generic, in that these objections are typically raised against numerous scientific advances. These objections devolve into claims that cloning is “unnatural” and/or a usurpation of god’s will (Benatar, 1998:165). The claim that cloning is unnatural is easy to defeat. Firstly, it is never made clear why “unnatural” equals “immoral”, nor why some scientific advances – involving treatments or interventions that do not occur in nature – are morally permissible and others not. The wearing of spectacles comes to mind here, in that if unnatural equals immoral, many of us are surely destined for eternal damnation, seeing as the natural purpose of one’s nose and ears was surely never to support spectacles.

As for usurping god’s will: this objection is rarely encountered when we elect to have life-saving surgery performed on us or on those we care for, pointing to a an expedient interpretation of the will of god. Selective breeding is widespread and seems, at least judging by the lack of objections to the practice, to enjoy god’s blessing – yet this is surely also not how god would have willed it. Finally, many of the vegetables and fruit (pears, apples and potatoes, to name a few) we eat are commonly cloned, and consistency would surely demand the equal interrogation of these practices. It cannot therefore be the case that all cloning is wrong, and we would need to find some way to differentiate between beef and apples as cloned food, if we wanted to sustain a different moral judgement in these two cases.

Cloned food and the violation of animal welfare

Opponents of cloned food frequently point to the fact that cloning appears to carry health risks for both the surrogates carrying clone embryos as well as the clones themselves. The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies reported that clones experience a high rate of disease and other problems including “increased weight, malformations, respiratory problems, enlarged livers, haemorrhaging and kidney abnormalities” (Kanter, 2008). These problems result in clones tending to have an increased frequency of death early in life (although “the animals that survive infanthood – for example, ~50 days for calves – appear to be completely normal”). (Miller, 2007:202)

Given the existing poor treatment of animals in much conventional farming, it should give us pause to consider implementing technologies that lead to increased suffering for the animals in question. However, given that much of the market for meat does already tolerate harm to animals, we are again entitled to ask questions regarding consistency. If harm to animals is a moral wrong, then surely it is wrong in all its manifestations, and opponents to cloned food should be equally concerned with more conventional farming practices. This is not to say that some critics are blind to this, and compelling indictments of farming practice, such as Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, make for uncomfortable reading. The tenor of most objections to cloned food, however, follows a familiar pattern: new innovations are treated with suspicion, but become accepted over time once there is some new outrage to focus the attention on.

While these slippages in moral principle sometimes compromise our ability to take critics of technological innovation in food seriously, it remains true that these potential harms to animals call for caution in the implementation of new technologies. If it is demonstrated that cloning necessarily leads to such harms, I would agree that the cloning of meat is an immoral practice (leaving aside scenarios where greater harms would be incurred through not cloning, such as human starvation). These considerations are, however, not sufficiently compelling to rule against cloning at present – especially given that these harms are likely to decrease, and perhaps even be eliminated, once the technology is perfected.

It is also important to remember that these new technologies offer some hope for curing disease or improving health in humans, and that these potential benefits should also be fed into the moral calculus. For example, researchers at Hematech (Milking cows for all they’re worth, 2002) are working on harvesting groups of disease-fighting human proteins (immunoglobulins) from cows, which can be used to treat tetanus and rabies. Furthermore, seeing as cloning represents total genome control, there’s no theoretical reason why we cannot target any attribute for cloning, such as less fat or more Omega-3 acids (Miller, 2007:201). We could also imagine creating lines of animals resistant to diseases such as BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), thereby minimising potential harms to humans.

Is cloned food safe for human consumption?

In January 2008, when declaring food from cloned animals safe to eat, Stephen Sundlof of the F.D.A. announced that “It is beyond our imagination to even have a theory for why the food is unsafe” (Martin and Pollack, 2008). This followed a tentative declaration of the same conclusion in 2003, and then again in 2006, following a draft risk assessment. Despite these assurances, the rhetoric of the anti-cloning lobby seems to presume that the F.D.A. is permitting a development that would lead to foodstuffs that are dangerous to consume. The first point to make in response is that this objection seems to be based mostly on anti-scientism, and also on a misunderstanding of the science involved. A clone is a copy – if the “parent” is safe to eat, the clone would also be, seeing as it is genetically identical.

This picture changes once we start trying to clone animals so as to have particular traits, as described above. Producing cows as GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) certainly does raise the possibility of producing something unsafe to eat – but this risk is not certain, and we have no reason to doubt that it can’t be controlled through careful implementation of the technology. This possibility, then, again argues for caution rather than for the moral impermissibility of cloning animals, seeing as the goal of maximising certain traits is already widespread in selective breeding of herds. Limiting the argument to cloning alone, the objection has no force – cloning is not intended to produce beef that tastes like chicken, but rather a copy, just as safe or unsafe as the parent.

Debate still exists on the possibility of subtle epigenetic differences between animals and clones, but we as yet have no reason to suspect that these differences (if they exist) are at all relevant to food safety. Furthermore, all tests to date have failed to demonstrate the existence of such differences. Once again, we do have cause for careful monitoring and caution with regard to cloned food, but no compelling reason to not permit it at all – especially in light of the fact that the public is unlikely to ever eat a clone, but would instead be eating the offspring of clones – or more likely, the offspring of the offspring of clones – due to the cost of producing a clone itself (around USD $20 000).

Genetic diversity and monoculture

Interviewed in January 2008, Michael Pollan observed that “variation is what keeps us from getting wiped out by microbes. If everything is genetically identical, one disease can come along and wipe out the entire group” (Parker-Pope, 2008). Currently, clones are too expensive to produce, and the size of herds too large (current estimates are that there are 570 clones in a population of 90-plus million livestock)(Robinson-Jacobs, 2008), for these to be genuine concerns. But if we imagine a scenario where cloning techniques are perfected, and have thus become cheaper and more widespread, these concerns could become very real. This would have to be avoided, perhaps by limiting the number of cloned embryos of a given animal that were sold. The problem would then become a legislative and regulatory one, rather than a moral issue. As much as it’s possible, for example, for people to cause harm to themselves and others by driving their cars irresponsibly, we never see that as a reason for outlawing driving, but rather for outlawing driving irresponsibly, for example while drunk. Optimism with regard to this problem being largely self-regulating on the part of farmers can be found in the likelihood that, no matter how inexpensive cloning eventually becomes, it will surely always be more expensive than traditional breeding.

Revulsion: Cloned food as dirty food

A survey of the popular reaction to cloned food reveals that not only are most critics overly persuaded by “Brave New World” paranoia, but that they also believe the argument against cloned food to be resolved by their distaste – or even disgust – towards it. In many cases, knee-jerk rhetoric ends the discussion, for example in Jerry Greenfield’s (of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream) observation that cloning is “just weird” (McWilliams, 2008). While it is perfectly legitimate for a person’s aesthetic preferences to determine what they eat, it is simultaneously perfectly unclear why anyone else should care about another’s personal tastes, and what they may or may not consider unclean or repulsive.

The only prospect for a generalised disgust towards cloned food to gain any currency is via appeals to unnaturalness or playing god – objections that have been dismissed above. What remains is the mere fact that one person, a group of people, or even a majority of people are repulsed by the idea of eating cloned food (as mentioned above, exemptions are given to various fruits and vegetables). This issue seems easily resolved – let those who are disgusted choose to not eat cloned food, while the rest of us are left free to eat whatever food we choose. This simple resolution is however compromised by the debate around labelling, discussed below.

On disgust itself: this “yuk factor” cannot settle any arguments as to the wrongness of cloned food, except if wrongness is defined on a purely subjective level. Verlyn Klinkenborg tells us that “anyone who really cares about food — its different tastes, textures and delights — is more interested in diversity than uniformity” (Klinkenborg, 2008), but this emotive claim cannot exclude someone from really caring about food to the extent that she wants her steak to always be just so. Furthermore, the interests of those who want diversity can be accommodated alongside those who want uniformity – there is no need to stigmatise those who prefer uniformity as having blunt palates. It is also the case that the sort of wrongness expressed in personal preferences is not typically regarded as a reason to legislate for all – if that were the case, I could assure you that there would be far fewer R&B artists in the world, and that the boy-band phenomenon would never have come about.

The legitimate concern, though, is that food is partly about emotion. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to eat for pleasure, not only for survival, and this means that our aesthetic judgements become compelling, if only for ourselves. It may make no objective difference to the taste of a wine that it is made by a 15th-generation winemaker from Burgundy, but it may still make a difference to my palate. Analogously, my knowing whether my steak is from a cloned animal or not may impact on the pleasure I take in eating it, whether or not the chemical composition, texture or anything else is different to that of a steak from a non-cloned cow. The analogy is unfortunately compromised by the fact that all the wine we drink comes from cloned grapes – but again, aesthetics does not need to make room for the dictates of logic.

Labelling of cloned food

While food, and the consumption thereof, is partly about subjective or emotive factors, it is not immediately obvious that cloned food should therefore be labelled explicitly as “cloned food”. The simple reason for this claim is that mandatory food labelling intends, and is legislated, to advise regarding the safety of the food – not the potential that it holds for your enjoyment. We can thus separate two issues: first, whether cloned food should carry mandatory labelling, indicating that it is cloned, and second, whether there is merit in the concept of differentiating cloned from non-cloned meat at all.

On the first issue, on current evidence, there seems no reason for the USDA, or any regulatory body, to legislate for labelling of cloned food, seeing as no health risks have been established. The legislation in question (the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act) “requires that food labels be truthful and not misleading, and federal law prohibits label statements that are likely to be misunderstood by consumers” (Miller, 2007:202). It should also be noted that mandatory labelling might automatically be read as a warning to consumers, advising them of a risk that the FDA does not believe exists. This would be prejudicial to producers of cloned meat, and would be impossible to justify, at least in terms of fears related to health. What we would then be asking the USDA to do is to force producers to provide information that is unrelated to the healthiness of their products, and this would appear to put us on a slippery slope whereby anything that could be of relevance to any potential consumer becomes a required element on that product’s label. Labelling cloned food would simply be a label that caters for disgust. While there are precedents for this, such as record labels warning of sexually explicit lyrics, the labelling of cloned food would then suggest a need for us to also label wine bottles, fruits and vegetables for us to not be accused of serious inconsistencies in terms of the motivation for reported disgust.

It is therefore difficult to see any clear reason why legislation should exist to ensure that cloned food be labelled – but regardless of this, perhaps producers might in time prefer to label their meat as cloned. Cloned food could attract a price-premium, because consumers would be offered a guarantee of certain characteristics and consistency, and would presumably be willing to extra pay for that guarantee (Weiss, 2008). Producers may understandably be unwilling to take that risk at present, seeing as public sentiment runs firmly against the notion of cloned food. If they choose to not label their food as cloned, this could be a boon to an already burgeoning industry – the organic food movement, in that the market share represented by organic food would have a clear opportunity to enhance their claims (however spurious, in this case) to be the best alternative for a healthy individual, and a healthier world in general.


The significant concerns with regard to the emergence of a monoculture through cloning our food do, as indicated above, mean that cloned food is not a trouble-free solution to world hunger – even once cloning animals becomes inexpensive enough for this to be a realistic goal. There also remains a possibility that we may uncover health risks – to both the eater and the eaten – that mitigate against cloned food. On the evidence we have, objections to cloned food do not justify claims as to the impermissibility of the practice – only to remaining vigilant to emerging threats that the practice may give rise to.

In the meanwhile, the good that could come from cloning food gives us sound reasons to continue developing the technology. The suspicion of cloned food that is being encouraged in some quarters encourages an untenable position: that any technological advance that bears possible risk should be terminated before any such harm can accrue. This approach is sensible where the actual harms clearly outweigh the possible benefits, or where we have good reason to believe that possible harms clearly outweigh possible benefits – and neither of these conditions obtains in the case of cloned food.

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MILLER, H. I. (2007) Food from cloned animals is part of our brave old world. Trends in Biotechnology, 25(5):201-03.

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By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.