Send In the Clones

Meat and milk from the offspring of cloned animals may already be in a store near you. You may have already consumed it. I guess it didn't kill you.

Last January, the FDA announced that cloned meat and milk are safe, a huge relief to farmers and bioscience firms which have been quietly working on the process for years. Still, while the FDA gave its blessing, the USDA didn't want to unleash cloned products on the market all at once—who would buy it? So, for now, only the normally conceived offspring of cloned animals can be sold or consumed.

By "normally conceived", I mean there's an egg and a sperm involved. Two parents. One cloned, one maybe not.

Recently I was in Sioux Center, Iowa, where the FDA ruling has helped perk up the cloning business at Trans Ova. The firm is involved in all sorts of fertilization techniques, but it has a special cloning business called Bovance, a joint venture with Viagen. Trans Ova first started cloning cattle nine years ago. Scientists use a piece of a cow's ear, remove DNA material from it, and inject that material into a donor egg which has had its original DNA sucked out, leaving only the clone's DNA inside (I'm oversimplifying). That egg begins to act as if it's fertilized, and, after being placed inside a surrogate mother cow, a clone is born.

No one really knows what the cloning market could be worth, but Trans Ova's Dr. David Faber (no relation to our David Faber) doesn't expect it to be huge. For one thing, it's very expensive to clone an animal at the moment—currently costing as much as $20,000 per clone. "Farmers really clone what we will call the 'Rock Stars' of the barnyard," Dr. Faber says. "Rock stars" are the genetically superior animals farmers want to keep alive through generations, using their eggs or sperm to produce superior offspring.

Even assuming the USDA eventually allows Americans to consume actual clones--not just the offspring--Dr. Faber says few clones would ever be sold to market. They are just too valuable, cost too much to create, to send to slaughter. The point is to get their eggs or sperm—not their meat and milk—and create dozens, or hundreds, of marketable offspring.

Several companies from Wal-Mart to Tysonto Kraft Foodshave pledged not to use cloned animals, but there is no such pledge against using clones' offspring. How this all shakes out will take time. But, for the moment, it's looking up for ranchers who've been cloning "rock stars" for generations to keep that genetic line alive long after the original "star" died. They've been waiting, and hoping, for this moment, when they can finally make some money on that superior DNA.

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