Cattle 'cloned from dead animals'
- 12 August 2010
- From the section Science & Environment
Some of the cattle cloned to boost food production in the US have been created from the cells of dead animals, according to a US cloning company.
Farmers say it is being done because it is only possible to tell that the animal's meat is of exceptionally high quality by inspecting its carcass.
US scientists are using a variety of techniques to assess which animals have exceptional qualities.
These attributes include meat quality, productivity or longevity.
These exceptional animals are cloned to be used as breeding stock, with the aim of raising the quality of herds on beef, dairy and pig farms in the US.
There is a long tradition of resurrecting dead animals for cloning - Dolly the sheep being a case in point.
The head of the leading US animal cloning company has said that European farmers will fall behind the rest of the world unless they are allowed to use such techniques to improve the productivity of their livestock.
The aim of livestock cloning is to clone the best animals to produce the best beef.
But some cattle farmers believe it is impossible to pick the best quality animals until their meat has been properly analysed.
That is why there are cloned bulls here that have been produced from the cells taken from the carcasses of dead animals.
Brady Hicks of the JR Simplot company in Idaho said his organisation was among many that had tried out the technique successfully.
"The animals are hanging on a rail ready to go to the meat counter," he told BBC News.
"We identify carcasses that have certain carcass characteristics that we want, but it's too late to reproduce the genetics of the animal. But through cloning we can resurrect that animal."
These "resurrected" animals are then bred with naturally born cows. The next step is to see if their offspring - whose meat can be sold to consumers in the US - have the same qualities as the grandparent from which the cells were originally taken.
Ranchers at the Simplot company also clone from live animals that are particularly productive or fertile.
The driving force behind the project is the head of the company, Scott Simplot, who firmly believes that cloning can be used to improve beef production. His stated aim is to raise the standard of the great American steak.
"The notion behind what we are doing is to find that animal that created that great steak - and once we have it, we want to reproduce it," he said.
"So (if we are successful), every time we have a steak at a restaurant it will have that memorable taste."
But the idea is not to everyone's taste. The leading whole food chain in the US, Whole Foods Market, has banned the sale of products of cloning.
According to its global vice-president, Margaret Wittenberg, although meat and milk from cloned animals has been allowed to go on sale in the US, most Americans have never heard of it.
"A lot of customers in the United States are oblivious of it," she said.
"You don't hear about it in the media. And when you do tell people about it they look at you and say 'you're kidding! They're not doing that are they? Why would they?'"
Mark Walton, president of the leading US animal cloning company, ViaGen, says livestock farmers have a very good reason to use his services.
He says scientists in many countries are trying to find ways of using the technology to boost production and quality.
Cloning is not used by livestock farmers in Europe, and there are moves by some members of the European Parliament to ban it altogether. Mr Walton believes that would be a mistake.
"If I were a European farmer and my competitors in the US, China and South America were using the technology, I'd be concerned about losing all access to it," he said.
It is early days for cloning in US agriculture. There are only a thousand clones in the one hundred million-strong American cattle herd.
The idea is to pick the best animals and use them to breed from. ViaGen charges cattle farmers $17,000 to clone an animal.
It would cost them around $4,000 to buy a high quality bull to breed from. So for cloning to be worthwhile, the technology has to produce animals that are substantially better than the ones that can be obtained via traditional methods.
At the moment, the technique is at an experimental phase. Beef, pig and dairy farmers are all trying to establish whether cloning is an economic proposition.
Two years ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that meat and milk from cloned animals were safe to eat. Ever since then, products from the offspring of cloned animals have entered the food chain
Supporters of the technology say that costs will come down - and as farmers become better able to identify their exceptional animals, cloning technology will begin to pay big dividends.
Mark Walton believes that the use of cloning in agriculture will eventually become the norm - not just in the US but across the world.