Did that steak come out of a test tube or from a feedlot? Did the chicken in that bucket have both a mother and father?In other words, is someone trying to feed you meat from cloned animals?
Scientists said here yesterday that meats can be certified clone-free with DNA-tracking, a fast and cheap technique already used in some countries to certify beef and chicken as organic or hormone-free.
“Think of it as God’s barcode,” said Professor Patrick Cunningham, a DNA-tracking pioneer and now science adviser to the Irish government.
Originally developed to deal with public fears about meat sources during the European outbreak of Mad Cow disease in the 1990s, the method has since been improved and now costs only pennies per food item.
Cunningham said the method would also reveal meat or milk from the direct progeny of cloned cattle but costs rise sharply for later generations.
“I can’t see where it would be justified for their grandchildren or great-grandchildren,” he told a news conference here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Cunningham said DNA-tracking could be introduced quickly and cheaply in Canada because all cattle here already get unique identity numbers that follow them through slaughter and onto store meat counters.
But government would have to pass a law requiring that all cloned animals be registered with an independent agency that kept their genetic fingerprints on file. A quick scan of a cut of meat would quickly reveal if it contained any of those fingerprints. If not, the retailer could label the meat as clone-free.
The consumer right-to-know argument heated up in mid-January when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proclaimed that meat and milk from cloned animals were safe to eat.
The FDA also ruled that labels don’t have to reveal if the food comes from cloned cows, pigs or goats, or the clones’ offspring.
No foods derived from cloned animals are currently approved for sale in Canada and Health Canada officials say they’re still reviewing the safety evidence.
Cunningham agreed with industry contentions that high costs mean cloned meat won’t be on the market for many years. Cloned cattle currently costs six times as much to produce as cattle bred and raised the traditional way.
But he said that the world might much sooner see cloning of genetically engineered animals, which would make more economic sense.
The Irish professor referred specifically to the so-called “enviropigs” at the University of Guelph, which have been genetically engineered to have lower phosphorus levels in their excrement, producing pig waste that is more environmentally friendly.
An expert in bovine genetics, Cunningham developed the DNA-tracking technique along with colleagues at Trinity College in Dublin. It relies on tiny bits of genetic code, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) which are much cheaper to isolate than entire DNA strands.
Yet the technique still spots differences among cattle with very high precision.
“Between 30 and 40 SNPs will give you a 1 in 10 million discrimination between two individual cattle,” he said.
Cunningham is also co-founder of IdentiGEN, a spin-off company that provides DNA-tracking in Europe and the U.S. More than three-quarters of the “organic” beef sold by Ireland’s three largest retailers is certified using the technique, he said.