Label that Meat

“Cloned-animal products aren't on store shelves yet — the industry won't begin selling them for at least a few months, after a government-recommended "transition period" — but when they finally do appear in supermarkets you may not even notice, because they won't be labeled. "The FDA does not require labeling if there [are] no food safety issues," said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, at a January press conference.

That's where Dr. Patrick Cunningham, the former director of the Animal Production and Health Division of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, and Ireland's current chief scientific advisor, comes in. Cunningham's 12-year-old company, IdentiGEN, specializes in DNA tracing of meat products — a process that can save valuable time during industry recalls, like the massive one on Sunday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) involving 143 million lbs. of raw and frozen beef.

Currently, IdentiGEN is operating in Europe, where the mad cow crisis in the mid-'90s led to the establishment of a comprehensive system of traceability. All pork and beef products sold at the U.K.-based, worldwide megamarket TESCO, for example, have been logged by IdentiGEN and stamped with the IdentiGEN DNA TraceBack seal of approval, as are 75% of beef and pork products sold in Ireland — the seal proves that the meat originated where the supplier says it did.

Until now, the genetic traceability of meat hasn't been much of a public health issue in the U.S. But with the USDA recall and the FDA's Jan. 15 approval of cloned-animal food products, Cunningham thinks Americans will want to know where the food in their grocery store is coming from. A 2007 poll by the Consumers Union found, in fact, that 89% of consumers would prefer that cloned foods be distinguished with labels. "This idea that all our food can be anonymous, trucked from anywhere in the world with its origins lost along the way, I don't think that's acceptable in today's world," says Cunningham. He adds, "People will want to label their [products] clone free.”

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