Consumers like to know what they're being fed.
That may sound like a loaded statement nowadays, considering that artificially cloned animals last week were approved for consumption — no label required — by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Or because the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio have both been debating, in court, whether it should be legal to allow dairies to label milk “produced without the use of artificial hormones,” since a multinational bioengineering corporation opposes those types of claims on grounds of defamation.
It's hard to blame the FDA. The volume of product recalls and contamination scares in 2007 demonstrated that it's an underfunded organization that barely has the manpower to inspect 1% of the food and medical devices imported into the country annually. With this decision, the FDA is simply pointing out that there's no discernible difference in milk or meat from clones or their offspring when compared with those from a conventionally raised animal. There don't appear to be any safety concerns, and there's no way for them to police the matter.
So, as always, the onus is on retailers to vet their distributors and their products according to what their customers want. In this case, to figure out who, exactly, was calling for cloned steaks and burgers, or milk produced by cows injected with rBGH.
Right now, the answer is hardly anyone.
More than 150,000 consumers took the time to write the FDA and argue against this decision during the agency's open comment period last year. Several environmental activism groups, along with organizations like the National Cooperative Grocer's Association, have released statements protesting the decision. Similarly, a 2005 survey by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology revealed that 70% and 76% of frequent and somewhat-frequent church attendees, respectively, are uncomfortable with the concept of cloning.
Of course, there are bound to be shoppers who just don't care, and others who trust the safety of new technologies without question. And last week, at FMI's Midwinter Conference, Mark Walton, president of ViaGen, a bioengineering company, said that consumer opinion data show an increase in positive attitudes toward cloning during the past year, as consumers learn more about the technology.
But ultimately, this just doesn't look like a technology that was developed with consumers in mind. They didn't ask for it. This is not a response to pent-up demand for slightly better-tasting steaks and burgers.
Rather, as George Siemon, chief executive officer of Organic Valley, wrote in response to the ruling, it seems that “FDA has rushed to judgment with a decision aimed at supporting large corporations seeking to increase their profits in food manufacturing, raise their stock value and pad their wallets; all at the cost of everyday individuals.”
The FDA, ViaGen and Cyagra aren't out to get anyone here. But even if we can take them at their word, and accept that the offspring of clones are safe to eat, the fact that no labels will be required on these products is the most disturbing development from last week. Consumers still like to know what they're being fed.