Ranchers keen on cloned beef await approval
Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 2:26 a.m.
The five jet black bulls trotting around Dean Kephart's red-dirt ranch have the same wide rump, long neck and stubby horns.
In fact, the half-ton, half-grown adolescents are the same in every way - they're clones.
Red plastic tags punched in their bushy ears are the only method of keeping track of Full Flush 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. All are exact genetic copies of Full Flush, Kephart's prize-winning celebrity sire of more than 30,000 calves across the country.
The handsome bovine, perfect in most every way, was cloned for one reason: He wasn't performing up to his stud potential. Full Flush doesn't produce semen fast enough to satisfy the hundreds of ranchers paying $50 each to artificially inseminate their cows in hopes of producing top-quality, fat and juicy steaks.
At 14 months, Full Flush's clones are nearly ready to become fathers, and Kephart is anxious to start recouping the $25,000 invested in each bull.
But first Kephart and the handful of other U.S. ranchers who have cloned cattle to sell their semen need permission from the Food and Drug Administration, which has so far not approved them - or any other cloned animals - for human consumption. A decision isn't expected for months and may not come until next year.
Don Coover, a Kansas bull semen broker, didn't know Full Flush's clones would be kept out of the food chain when he proposed to Kephart that they clone the bull. An FDA letter on the issue came out after Coover began the project.
But he has no regrets about putting up thousands of dollars to clone the champion bull, whose semen is one of the hot sellers at Coover's SEK Genetics/Genetic Horizons in Galesburg, Kan.
Kephart needed a bit of coaxing.
``To a lot of producers, this was kind of Star Wars stuff,'' Coover said.
Coover punched out a piece of Full Flush's ear, then shipped the tissue sample to Cyagra, a cloning company in Worcester, Mass. Scientists there isolated the bull's DNA, then injected it into cow eggs that had been stripped of their own genetic material.
After seven days, the embryos were implanted in cows at Kansas State University. Three cows gave birth to two clones each. One of the six calves died by hanging its collar on a gate latch. The surviving five seem perfect, said Cyagra marketing director Steven Mower.
``They call them the dream team,'' he said.
Kephart admits his clones are spoiled, bottle-fed for the first eight weeks of life and handled like overgrown pets. ``They're pretty good-lookin','' he says, running a hand over No. 2's broad back.
On a sunny January day at Kephart's ranch, 5,000 acres on western Oklahoma's flat plains dotted with oil pumps, Kephart and his crew primped the clones for catalog photographs. He marveled at their similarities as he sprayed their hooves with black paint and fluffed their coats with a cattle blow-dryer.
Kephart, a barrel-chested man in manure-stained shoes and dusty Wranglers, admitted with a chuckle that he sometimes wonders whether the clones are all thinking the same thing.
``One will decide he wants to eat and they'll all go eat,'' he says. ``They'll all be sitting there and, at the same time, they'll all get up and get a drink.''
Few neighbors in tiny Canute, 100 miles west of Oklahoma City, have come to see the clones - mostly because Kephart doesn't tell many people about them. ``Most of them would think you're nuts to do something like that,'' he explained.
What the FDA thinks remains to be seen.
Officials at the agency promise an explanation before the end of the year of how they'll determine whether the offspring of cloned animals or their milk is safe to eat.
The offspring of Kephart's clones and others like them could be tracked and researched before they enter the food chain, said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
If, as producers expect, milk and meat from cloned animals is no different than food made from other animals, the products likely won't be specially labeled as such in supermarkets, Sundlof said.
Still, allowing cloned animals to join the food chain would have noticeable effects, he said.
``My sense is that what will occur is much more uniformity in the products that people are getting at the supermarkets,'' Sundlof said.
``They will have been selected for very specific characteristics,'' he said.
That uniformity is what worries groups opposed to cloning animals for food.
``You want some variety - it doesn't matter if you're talking about corn crops or cows or sheep - to protect against disease,'' said Dr. Margaret Mellon, an agriculture specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. ``Do we really want to go in a direction where cows are even more identical to each other?
``The nation is awash in meat and milk. I'm not sure what deficiencies in our existing system we're trying to repair.''
But Kephart and his crew say there's nothing to worry about. The clones and their sperm are no different from their champion father.
``These are done proven, like Full Flush is proven,'' he said.
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