December 1, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 21)
Henry I. I. Miller, M.D. Physician and fellow Stanford University
Recently Implemented Ban Defies Voluminous and Persuasive Scientific Data
Misconceptions about the physical and biological world can persist long after the science is settled. Benighted inventors regularly propose ways to obtain unlimited energy from perpetual motion machines that violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for example, and a group called the Flat Earth Society insisted until at least 2001 that our planet was not round.
European Luddites are in the same category when it comes to many innovative technologies, although they represent only evolutionary improvements over existing products or processes. Benighted politicians there seem determined to discourage certain innovations in food technology even when worldwide consensus affirms their safety.
In July of this year, the European Parliament called for a ban on commercializing foods derived from cloned animals and their offspring, and in October the European Commission proposed sweeping, temporary bans on animal cloning for food production. The proscriptions would encompass the use of cloned farm animals and the marketing of food from clones, and also create a system to trace imported genetic material such as semen and cloned embryos.
These draconian, anti-innovation proposals conflict with the expert opinions of the European Food Safety Authority, which has said repeatedly that with respect to food safety, there is no difference between milk and meat from conventionally bred animals and those obtained from clones and their offspring.
Assurances of food safety seem to be insufficient, however. “Although no safety concerns have been identified so far with meat produced from cloned animals, this technique raises serious issues about animal welfare and reduction of biodiversity, as well as ethical concerns,” said French parliamentarian Corinne Lepage in July.
Rubbish. After six years of deliberation, in January 2008 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally—and rightly—concluded that food from cloned animals is safe, raises no environmental or other concerns, and may appropriately be sold and consumed. Evaluations in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have come to the same conclusion about safety and other factors. These decisions were based on voluminous and persuasive scientific data.
But here’s the clincher: It seems to have completely escaped the European politicians who continue to prattle on about issues like animal welfare, biodiversity, and ethics that cloning technology of one sort or another is already widely applied to a variety of foods that Europeans and American consume routinely and uncontroversially.
As Nature Biotechnology editorialized about this issue in January 2007: “The irony in all this is that food from clones has been a part of our diet for years. Many common fruits (e.g., pears, apples, oranges, and lemons) and several vegetables (e.g., potatoes and truffles) are clones. And most of us have probably ingested meat and dairy products from livestock cloned by natural reproduction (monozygotic siblings), mechanical embryo-splitting, or even nuclear transfer from an embryonic donor cell into an enucleated oocyte. Regulators traditionally paid scant attention to clones as a group—and rightly so.”
Finally, according to The New York Times, “a handful of breeders in Switzerland, Britain, and possibly other countries have imported semen and embryos from cloned animals or their progeny from the United States, seeking to create more consistently plump and productive livestock. And although no vendor has publicly acknowledged it, meat or dairy products originating from such techniques are believed to be already on supermarket shelves.” This was confirmed by the U.K. Food Standards Agency in August.
Thus, European food producers and consumers have been voting with their feet—and their stomachs.
Given this experience and the assurances of safety from Europe’s own food safety regulators, among others, what could be the reason for the political opposition to foods from cloned animals?
One possible explanation is trade considerations: Because most animal cloning is likely to be done in North America, Europeans would like to erect nontariff trade (that is, regulatory) barriers to it.
But there is another explanation for Europeans’ gastronomic paranoia. From the ninth to the nineteenth centuries, Europe suffered a succession of epidemics caused by contamination of rye with ergot, a poisonous mold that produces the potent toxin ergotamine, the consumption of which induces hallucinations, bizarre behavior, and violent muscle twitching.
These symptoms gave rise at various times to the belief that victims were possessed by evil spirits. Witch-hunting and persecution were commonplace—and the New World was not immune. One leading explanation for the notorious 1691–1692 Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials relates to ergot contamination.
Three young girls suffered violent convulsions, incomprehensible speech, trance-like states, odd skin sensations, and delirious visions in which, supposedly, they saw the mark of the devil on certain women in the village. The girls lived in a swampy meadow area around Salem, rye was a major staple of their diet, and records indicate that the rye harvest was complicated by rainy and humid conditions, exactly the situation in which ergot would thrive.
Worried villagers feared the girls were under a spell cast by demons, and the girls eventually named three women as witches. The subsequent panic led to the execution of as many as 20 innocent people. The girls’ symptoms are typical of ergot poisoning, and when the supply of infected grain ran out, the delusions and persecution likewise disappeared.
So dangerous food has, historically, been a realistic fear. But while medieval Europeans thought their rye was perfectly safe and blamed evil spirits for their maladies, today’s Continentals have cloned food that actually is perfectly safe, but in too many quarters is still treated as a kind of witchcraft. Maybe the problem is neither protectionism nor evil spirits, but a degree of ignorance that is inexplicable in the 21st century, and is depriving European consumers of tastier, more nutritious, and cheaper food.
Henry I. Miller, M.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org), a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA. He is the co-author of “The Frankenfood Myth.”