Sunday, January 27, 2008

Where's the Beef?

The nonsense about food from cloned animals

It's not often that American food companies join hands with environmental and consumer activists to call for greater government control over the nation's food supply. But that's just what happened last week after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs, and goats are safe for consumers.

Despite the overwhelming science behind that finding, industry and activists have called for a ban on cloned food products. Naturally, you might think that lockstep agreement from such unlikely bedfellows is a little fishy. And you'd be right. The losers would be American consumers, farmers, and the environment.

Since 1996, when Dolly the sheep became the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, thousands of animal clones - including other sheep as well as cows, goats, pigs, horses, rabbits, and several other species - have been born and studied more intensely than the progeny of almost any other animal breeding technique. Critics claim the process will create monstrous new hybrids in some kind of barnyard "Boys from Brazil ," but the reality is that consumer safety is not seriously in doubt.

FDA took more than six years investigating the matter, and its comprehensive, 968-page report shows that thousands of nutritional and other compositional comparisons reveal no differences between the safety of clones and conventionally bred animals. Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said at a news conference last Tuesday that agency scientists have "done a very extensive job of looking at anything that could possibly be a food hazard, and to be honest, we found nothing."

Regulatory authorities in New Zealand , France , and the European Union agree. And government scientists in Australia , Canada , and Japan are expected to issue their own clean bills of health in the next year or two.

This overwhelming agreement among scientists should pave the way for animal clones - or to be more exact, their offspring - to come to market. Cloning is expensive, costing as much as $17,000 for cows and $4,000 for pigs. So, the vast majority of clones will be used just for breeding. Only their naturally produced off-spring should find their way into grocery stores during the next few decades.

Since there are no real questions about consumer safety, the critics have had to capitalize on zany scare stories and the public's ambivalence about unfamiliar technologies. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) says that a "flood of milk from highly productive cloned cows is not good for the taxpayers" who buy surplus milk from dairy farmers. The group also claims cloning will make our kids fat because "[s]urplus milk is turned into high fat products that then go to school children."

At one FDA meeting, CFA's Carol Tucker Foreman even exploited religious and ethical concerns, criticizing the agency for studying food safety without first considering any ethical and religious implications. Of course, FDA is not legally permitted to consider religious objections, as the activists point out when the agency evaluates controversial products they want approved.

More importantly, humans have been using sophisticated scientific methods to control animal reproduction for decades, so we have already settled the ethical arguments critics of animal cloning now raise in opposition. Cloning is really just a technological extension of methods such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryo transfer that are now commonplace in animal breeding, though it uses one animal's DNA to create an exact genetic copy, essentially an identical twin born a generation later.

While it has been just a decade since Dolly was born, most of the individual steps that make cloning possible are a close to a century old. The transfer of living embryos from one animal's womb to another, for example, dates to the 1800s. Cloning itself has been conducted with invertebrates, amphibians, and other non-mammalian animals since the turn of the 19 th century. And IVF was developed for animal breeding in the 1950s.

Even today's proven method of cloning mammals - transferring an adult animal's genetic material to an unfertilized egg - was first envisioned in the 1930s. Its use simply had to wait until these intermediate steps were perfected over the following decades. As a consequence, scientists know today far more about the health and well-being of cloned animals than the skeptics would have us believe.

Furthermore, none of the technical difficulties that cloning critics highlight is unique. Many clonal pregnancies result in miscarriage, and some clones have neonatal health problems, so critics insist that moving forward now is inhumane and unethical. But, each of these problems is also present in other assisted reproductive technologies, such as IVF and embryo transfer, as well as natural mating. Animal breeders have managed them for decades, so their presence in cloned animals presents no unique ethical or consumer safety issues.

The abundant evidence of safety is why the critics have had to focus attention away from the science. Instead they ask, even if we can clone animals safely, why should we? The answer is simple. Breeders can produce better and safer food by cloning rare animals that produce leaner meat, for example, or are especially resistant to common livestock diseases. Researchers in Asia have even cloned a cow that appears to be resistant to mad cow disease. The ability to drastically reduce illness among animals and to improve consumer safety arguably makes cloning more, not less humane than traditional breeding.

But that's not all. Producing more meat or milk per animal helps reduce farming's ecological footprint by, for example, allowing for a reduction in the size of herds and lowering the amount of waste the animals generate. And cloning is already being used to help increase populations of threatened and endangered animals, such as the gaur and banteng, which are related to our beef and dairy cattle. Many scientists hope that, one day, cloning can help recover endangered species such as tigers, rhinos, and pandas.

Still, the activists' antics have scared one group of influential Americans: the dairy and packaged food industries. Rising demand in the U.S. for organic products makes many food companies believe consumers will reject meat and milk from clones. Others fear a trade backlash from technophobic consumers in places like France and Italy . That's why several major food companies, including the largest U.S. meat producer Tyson Foods, have already announced that they had "no immediate plans" to buy cloned livestock.

They may not have the chance. Ever since 2001, animal cloners have complied with a "voluntary" moratorium on selling food products from clones while they awaited FDA's safety study. Yet, even as FDA unveiled its final assessment last week, the U.S. Agriculture Department bowed to food industry pressure and asked to extend the moratorium until consumer concerns could be resolved - possibly as long as two or three more years. And Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski introduced legislation that would keep cloned animals off the market indefinitely.

Knowing that they are ultimately at the mercy of consumers and retailers, Texas-based Viagen and Iowa-based TransOva Genetics - two of three private sector U.S. cloning companies - developed a system to track cloned animals so that farmers, meat packers, and retailers who wish to do so can avoid them. John Kleiboeker, of the Missouri Beef Industry Council told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "the FDA may say it's not required, but consumers may want labels, so discerning marketers will do it."

Kleiboeker is right, of course. From organic milk and free trade coffee to kosher and halal meats, many consumers have shown a preference for foods produced in certain ways. But, that is exactly why extending the moratorium is unnecessary. American farmers and the food industry have proven perfectly capable of segregating foods from various new and old production systems whenever a genuine consumer demand for it exists. Whether it's religious, ethical, or environmental concerns, all that is needed is for regulators to make a science-based judgment on safety and then get out of the way.


The pill is good for you/bad for you, good for you/bad for you, good for you/bad for you...

There is such a regular oscillation in the findings about the effects of taking oral female hormones that I think it is clear that we are looking at a random walk here: There is no systematic effect -- just random fluctuations due to factors other than sample size

Women taking the contraceptive pill are protected against ovarian cancer for decades after they stop using the medication, a British study has found. Oxford University scientists found evidence that women taking the pill for 15 years halved their chances of developing the disease in a study published in The Lancet medical journal. They believe the pill has prevented some 200,000 cases of ovarian cancer and 100,000 deaths from this disease since its introduction nearly half a century ago.

Lead author Professor Valerie Beral, an Australian who is director of the Cancer Research UK Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, and her colleagues found the risk remained low more than 30 years later, although the benefits diminished over time. "It's been known for over 20 years that the pill protects against ovarian cancer but most of the effects of the pill are short - only really just while women are taking the pill," Professor Beral said. "But for cancer of the ovary that gets much more common in older women, the really important question was, how long does protection last. "What we've shown here is that it lasts for over 30 years. It's really very long-term protection."

The research reviewed data from 45 studies covering more than 100,000 women. The scientists gathered data from 23,257 women who had developed ovarian cancer and 87,303 who had not. Of the first group, 31 per cent had used the pill, while 37 per cent of the second group had taken the medication. Ovarian cancer can be particularly aggressive and the symptoms are such that it is often detected at an advanced stage. "Worldwide, the pill has already prevented 200,000 women from developing cancer of the ovary and has prevented 100,000 deaths from the disease," Professor Beral said. "More than 100 million women are now taking the pill, so the number of ovarian cancers prevented will rise over the next few decades to about 30,000 per year."

Other research has found a statistically significant increased risk of cancer of the breast, cervix or central nervous system among users of the pill. But, in an editorial, The Lancet called for the pill to be made available over the counter rather than restricted by a doctor's prescription, given that, in its view, the benefits for cancer prevention and reproductive health outweighed the risks. "We believe the case is now convincing," the British journal said.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

9). And how odd it is that we never hear of the huge American study which showed that women who eat lots of veggies have an INCREASED risk of stomach cancer? So the official recommendation to eat five lots of veggies every day might just be creating lots of cancer for the future! It's as plausible (i.e. not very) as all the other dietary "wisdom" we read about fat etc.

10). And will "this generation of Western children be the first in history to lead shorter lives than their parents did"? This is another anti-fat scare that emanates from a much-cited editorial in a prominent medical journal that said so. Yet this editorial offered no statistical basis for its opinion -- an opinion that flies directly in the face of the available evidence.

Even statistical correlations far stronger than anything found in medical research may disappear if more data is used. A remarkable example from Sociology:
"The modern literature on hate crimes began with a remarkable 1933 book by Arthur Raper titled The Tragedy of Lynching. Raper assembled data on the number of lynchings each year in the South and on the price of an acre's yield of cotton. He calculated the correlation coefficient between the two series at -0.532. In other words, when the economy was doing well, the number of lynchings was lower.... In 2001, Donald Green, Laurence McFalls, and Jennifer Smith published a paper that demolished the alleged connection between economic conditions and lynchings in Raper's data. Raper had the misfortune of stopping his analysis in 1929. After the Great Depression hit, the price of cotton plummeted and economic conditions deteriorated, yet lynchings continued to fall. The correlation disappeared altogether when more years of data were added."
So we must be sure to base our conclusions on ALL the data. But in medical research, data selectivity and the "overlooking" of discordant research findings is epidemic.

"What we should be doing is monitoring children from birth so we can detect any deviations from the norm at an early stage and action can be taken". Who said that? Joe Stalin? Adolf Hitler? Orwell's "Big Brother"? The Spanish Inquisition? Generalissimo Francisco Franco Bahamonde? None of those. It was Dr Colin Waine, chairman of Britain's National Obesity Forum. What a fine fellow!


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