Last week the Unilever-owned ice-cream brand revealed that a website purporting to sell ‘perfect milk from perfect [cloned] cows’ was an April Fools’ prank – but a prank with a serious message.
It was intended to raise awareness that produce from the progeny of cloned animals may be in the food chain – but no-one, manufacturer nor consumer, can tell it from conventional produce.
The FDA gave its scientific conclusion in January 2008 that meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs and goats and their offspring are safe. Since the FDA acts as both risk assessor and risk manager, in the US (unlike in Europe) there is no separate legal process to herald the advent of cloned food.
The presence of such milk and meat in the food chain is, for now, an assumption made by the Center for Food Safety (Ben & Jerry’s campaign partner) based on the fact that semen from cloned bulls is being sold, including semen from dairy breeds.
But according to the Center for Food Safety, cloning companies have only agreed that live animals will wear RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags. Dairy and meat products derived from them will be utterly undistinguishable from ordinary dairy and meat.
The issue rekindles questions that hung over the regulation of GM produce in the 1990s: Whether it is the process or the final product that should be regulated; and how consumers can possibly avoid a biotech diet if they chose to.
Regulatory structures tend to take a product-based view of GM, rather than a process based view. A GM soy bean is still a soy bean, no matter how it came into being.
Current thinking seems to be that milk is milk, whether or not a parent of the cow it came from has a hundred identical counterparts.
Biotech opponents do not swallow this. They argue that we still don’t know the long-term implications of playing with a plant’s genes, either for human health or for the environment.
Campaigners are similarly unconvinced about the sense of copying a cow. They say that small imbalances in clones have hidden food safety consequence for milk or meat, and the novelty of the technology means no long-term studies have been done.
This article does not – cannot – answer the ethical and environmental debates buzzing around biotech and cloning. But consumer views are inevitably influenced by public debate, and Ben & Jerry’s is not the only company taking consumer wariness onboard and pledging their food will not come from animals with clones in the family tree.
But without proper traceability, how can they possibly keep to this promise?
In the 1990s UK supermarket Iceland led the charge towards GM traceability, using polymerised chain reaction technology to test for GM DNA in its soy products. And since that was not always reliable, it then audited its entire supply chain – from the field, through processing and manufacturing, right up to the point where they put it on the shelves.
Only that way could it assure consumers that its foods were non-GM.
Food from the progeny of clones may not be the US food chain now. It may never be. But the wider industry and the consumers they serve do not know, and they cannot know unless proper traceability is in place.
When it comes to food, ignorance is not bliss. It is deeply disturbing.
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com