The Dolly legacy: Are you eating cloned meat?

July 4, 2016 by Marlowe Hood And Pascale Mollard
Four white heifers, 'genetic twin sisters' produced using cloning technology, from a very elite Shorthorn cow in the US, seen at the headquarters of Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Iowa

Two decades after Scotland's Dolly the sheep became the first cloned mammal, consumers may well wonder whether they are drinking milk or eating meat from cookie-cutter cows or their offspring.

The simple answer: "probably".

The fact is, there is no way to know for sure, say the experts, even in Europe, which has come closer to banning livestock than anywhere else in the world.

With the possible exception of the ram sacrificed by Abraham in the Bible, Dolly must be the world's most famous sheep.

The ewe's birth in an Edinburgh laboratory on July 5, 1996 was front-page news, provoking hype and hand-wringing in equal parts.

For the most part, cloning turned out to be a dead end.

But there is one sector in which Dolly's legacy is alive and well: the duplication of prize breeding animals.

How aggressively the private sector has developed this niche market has depended in large part on national or regional regulations, with key differences between the United States, China and the European Union.

US: FDA approved

"The most dramatic impact of the cloning of Dolly has been on in the United States," said Aaron Levine, an expert in bioethics and cloning at Georgia Tech.

In 2008, the US Food and Drug Administration concluded that "food from cattle, swine and goat clones is as safe to eat as food from any other cattle, swine or goat."

Dolly's birth in an Edinburgh laboratory on July 5, 1996 was front-page news, provoking hype and hand-wringing in equal parts

Not even scientists can distinguish a healthy clone from a conventionally bred animal, the regulatory agency said.

There are no requirements to label meat or milk from a cloned animal or its offspring, whether sold domestically or abroad.

For industry, the aim was never to set up assembly-line production—cloning is difficult and expensive at more than 10,000 euros ($11,000) a pop, and the success rate low, with few clones surviving to birth.

So the focus, instead, is on copying genetically outstanding specimens so they may naturally sire exceptional progeny.

"It's fairly widespread in US to use cloning to produce breeding stock," said Levine. "Cloned animals are not intended to enter the food supply directly."

"I suspect some may have," he added.

Among the leaders in commercial livestock cloning in the US are Cyagra, based in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and ViaGen, in Austin, Texas.

At least one company, ViaGen, also provides services for copying cherished cats and dogs.

China, the new frontier

US companies typically produce hundreds or a few thousand clones per year.

The Boyalife Group's cloning new factory near the northern coastal city of Tianjin in China, however, is aiming for an annual output of 100,000 cows this year, scaling up to a million by 2020.

EU officials acknowledge that meat or milk derived from cows with a cloned ancestor may very well have made its way onto the market

Also in the pipeline are thoroughbred racehorses, pets and police dogs specialised in searching and sniffing.

Boyalife has said it is working with South Korean partner Sooam and the Chinese Academy of Sciences to improve primate cloning technology, to create better test animals for human disease research.

And in December, Boyalife's lead scientist and chief executive Xu Xiaochun, said he would not shy away from cloning humans if regulations allowed it.

Europe cold on cloning

Faced with strong public opinion against cloning of any kind, the European Union does not allow the practice in animal husbandry.

But officials acknowledge that meat or milk derived from cows with a cloned ancestor may very well have made its way onto the market, whether directly imported, obtained from a live imported animal, or one bred domestically from genetic material brought into the EU.

"Without knowing it, Europeans are probably eating meat from the descendents of clones that cannot be traced," said Pauline Constant, spokeswoman for the European Office of Consumer Associations, based in Brussels.

Officials say they are not concerned about any impact on human health.

In September, the European Parliament called by a large majority not only for a ban on cloned animals, but also on products derived from them.

The final decision rests with the European Commission, which has taken a less hard-line position.

Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and Australia are among the other countries which clone livestock.

Explore further: World's biggest clone factory raises fears in China

Related Stories

World's biggest clone factory raises fears in China

November 24, 2015

The world's largest animal cloning factory is under construction in China, with plans to churn out dogs, horses and up to a million beef cattle a year, reports said, prompting online and scientific concerns Tuesday.

EU lawmakers back animal cloning ban

June 17, 2015

EU lawmakers on Wednesday backed a ban on cloning farm animals and products derived from them, citing deep public unease at the prospect they could make it onto supermarket shelves.

EU wants cloned meat off the table (Update)

December 18, 2013

The European Commission said Wednesday it would ban meat from cloned animals but stopped short of imposing restrictions on produce from the offspring of such animals, a hugely sensitive issue.

EU lawmakers want full animal cloning ban

September 8, 2015

EU lawmakers backed calls Tuesday to tighten up a proposed ban on cloning animals for food so as to ensure they never find a place on European farms.

Recommended for you

Scientists ID another possible threat to orcas: pink salmon

January 19, 2019

Over the years, scientists have identified dams, pollution and vessel noise as causes of the troubling decline of the Pacific Northwest's resident killer whales. Now, they may have found a new and more surprising culprit: ...

Researchers come face to face with huge great white shark

January 18, 2019

Two shark researchers who came face to face with what could be one of the largest great whites ever recorded are using their encounter as an opportunity to push for legislation that would protect sharks in Hawaii.

Why do Hydra end up with just a single head?

January 18, 2019

Often considered immortal, the freshwater Hydra can regenerate any part of its body, a trait discovered by the Geneva naturalist Abraham Trembley nearly 300 years ago. Any fragment of its body containing a few thousands cells ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2016
"in Europe, which has come closer to banning livestock cloning"

-Perhaps they should consider banning politician cloning.

Lawmakers who aren't making laws aren't doing their jobs. So when they run out of real issues, they are forced to make up their own.

Democracy offers a clever solution: liberals can busy themselves passing laws which conservatives can then rescind, and everybody looks like they are doing something useful.

And the best part is, people get to vote for them as if they are actually a part of the process.


Democracy also has the advantage of shifting the blame onto the people instead of the politicians when something goes wrong, as it always does.

But it is usually wrong for one side or the other, and the disenfranchised can blame a whole segment of their fellow citizens instead of their Leaders as was traditionally the case.

Democracy was invented to preserve leadership, not to benefit the people.
not rated yet Jul 04, 2016
Because the people are the true enemies of Leaders everywhere.

As populations swell, as they always do, resources become scarce and the people begin to suffer. And the people will always blame their Leaders for their suffering, no matter how benevolent or well-meaning these Leaders might be.

And the Only Way to prevent civilization from collapsing, as it had done so many times in the past, is to divide the people up and set them against one another in Constructive and Controllable ways, so that the outcomes can always benefit Leaders.

This brilliant strategy emerged when tribes were the most complex system of human society. Tribal leaders began to stage conflicts in order to rid themselves of contentious young hotheads.

This system allowed for ever larger systems of order, culminating in the pleasant, orderly world we live in today.

Despite what you are led to believe.

An important point: democracy only works when pop growth can be controlled, as in the west.
not rated yet Jul 04, 2016
Democracy is a most benign form of conflict. Can humans exist without conflict?

Tribalism is genetic. We have been selected for it over the course of 1000s of gens. It is a form of domestication.

Socialism is potentially a social order devoid of conflict. But can humans be trusted as leaders in a socialist system, or will we have to wait for machines to emerge as our shepherds?
not rated yet Jul 04, 2016
Tastes the same to me
Da Schneib
not rated yet Jul 04, 2016
Simple question: why should I care? It's like caring whether the undercoat on my car is black or dark grey.

Being concerned whether you're eating meat from a cloned cow is hysteria. Not to mention, eating meat from a cow in the first place is more dangerous than anything cloning might do to it. I try not to eat beef or lamb more often than once a month. I'm good with cloned chicken and cloned fish, if that comes along.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.