Courtesy of West Texas A&M University
Courtesy of Carman Ranch
Courtesy of Reg Keddie, Dayton Natural Meats
Courtesy of Washington State University
Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP
Ty Lawrence still talks about it as his “lightbulb” moment. He was in a Texas slaughterhouse in 2010 when two absolutely beautiful beef carcasses rolled by. Each was the pinnacle of USDA grading: “Prime” and “Yield Grade One.”
Only 2 to 5 percent of U.S. beef is graded Prime, and Yield Grade One meant there was lots of it. By Lawrence’s estimate, only 1 in 3,300 beef carcasses will have those two attributes simultaneously. And here went two of them within a couple minutes of each other.
What happened next was either scientific breakthrough or unnecessary genetic fiddling, depending on your perspective. And it poses a conundrum for cattle producers and researchers in the Pacific Northwest, Northern California and beyond.
Lawrence, a professor of meat science at West Texas A&M University, called his department head that night and proposed forming a research team. Here’s what he wanted to do: Clone a herd of superior cattle by working backwards from superior beef.
The team soon formed, found a steer carcass and a cow carcass with the requisite grading qualities, took tissue samples and turned them over to a private Texas company, ViaGen, which specializes in cloning cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and even cats and dogs.
ViaGen created a bull, named Alpha, from the steer carcass, and three heifers — Gamma One, Gamma Two and Gamma Three — from the cow carcass.
Artificial insemination of the Gammas with semen from Alpha has resulted in 13 calves, the first bovine offspring of two cloned parents.
Seven of the offspring, all steers, were raised in a conventional manner, including finishing time at a grain feedlot, and slaughtered. Lawrence said the results are promising, especially given the small sample size. The offspring tended to produce better grade beef than average, and yield grades were ones and twos. The carcasses had 9 percent larger ribeye steaks than average and 45 percent more marbling, the desirable white specks of intramuscular fat. They had 16 percent less “trim” fat, the waste fat that doesn’t improve taste. The work is continuing.
The idea, of course, is that higher grade beef — raised the same way as regular cattle — would bring a greater return to the rancher.
Lawrence said beef quality is an afterthought in most cattle breeding operations, and West Texas A&M is turning that around.
“It’s kind of a meat science perspective on animal breeding, beginning with the end,” he said.
For critics and some in the industry, however, the West Texas work is a non-starter.
“My first take is that it’s a lot of work for little gain,” said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C.
Hanson said traditional cattle breeders “keep a real close eye on the genetics of their herd” and produce good quality beef for lower cost than cloning.
He said it’s unclear whether the West Texas A&M animals have encountered problems reported in other clones, such as Large Offspring Syndrome that can make birthing difficult. Achieving the good marbling results with grass fed cattle, without the expense of finishing them at a feedlot, might be of more benefit to producers, he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s whether a farmer can produce a high-quality product that the customer wants, at a price that will keep them in business,” Hanson said.
How to clone
Cloning has been around since 1996, when Scottish researchers announced the arrival of Dolly the sheep. The discovery touched off speculation about future uses of the technology, but since then cloning has primarily been confined to livestock breeding. It’s used, for example, to build dairy herds or to pass along the genetics of prized rodeo bucking bulls.
A cloned animal is not genetically modified. Rather, it is a duplicate of the donor animal. Advocates often refer to a clone as an identical twin born later. Lawrence, the West Texas A&M meat scientist, calls the result “a very fancy Xerox copy, if you will.”
To achieve it, scientists take an egg from a female animal and replace its gene-containing nucleus with the nucleus of a cell from the animal they want to copy. The egg cell forms an embryo, which is implanted in the uterus of a host female. The surrogate carries the pregnancy to term and delivers a calf.
ViaGen, the Texas company, charges $21,000 to clone a female and $23,000 to clone a bull.
After several years of study, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled in January 2008 that meat or milk from cloned animals or from their offspring was safe for human consumption and didn’t require special labeling. The approval applied to cattle, pigs and goats but not sheep, because there wasn’t enough information available about them, the FDA said.
Since the FDA’s decision, however, cloning animals for food hasn’t taken hold.
Will Homer, chief operations officer for Painted Hills Natural Beef in Fossil, Ore., said his company decided several years ago not to get involved with cloned livestock.
Even though cloned animals are not genetically modified, “You’re somewhat playing with Mother Nature,” he said. “There’s not going to be a very warm reception from the consumer for a cloned animal.
“That is the stone wall right there that they need to be aware of,” Homer said of the West Texas researchers. “The consumer would just blow their top.”
Homer said the volatile economics of the cattle industry in recent years, with falling prices and rising costs, offset herd improvements that might come from cloning.
Painted Hills, formed by seven ranching families, walks a tight market line. It delivers grain-finished cattle to a large-scale processor in Pasco, Wash., and takes grass-fed cattle to a specialty processor, Dayton Natural Meats in Dayton, Ore.
In addition to processing Painted Hills’ grass-fed beef, the Dayton facility processes hogs that are non-GMO verified, and organic turkeys and chickens. The facility processes meat for New Seasons markets, a Portland-based chain that caters to customers who prefer and are willing to pay more for locally grown, organic or sustainable food.
“We would stay as far away from clones as possible,” said Reg Keddie, general manager of Dayton Natural Meats.
Keddie said consumers already struggle to understand where their food comes from and would reject beef that had its “inception in a petri dish.” The Texas researchers, he said, are most likely aiming at the conventional meat companies that process thousands of cows a day.
Cory Carman, a Northeast Oregon cattle rancher who has carved out a niche selling grass-fed beef to high-end markets in Portland, said her customers are primarily interested in Carman Ranch’s practices and the nutritional profile and flavor of its meat. They don’t ask about yield and quality grade, she said.
“If our primary request was for more marbling in our meat, we might look into the ethics behind cloning or research the technology, but no one asks for that,” Carman said in an email. “Marbling isn’t the primary driver of meat quality for us.”
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said cloning may not be worth the risk of consumer backlash. As with GMOs, he said, science says it’s safe and the benefits are apparent, but social reaction is such that “all of a sudden, the science goes out the window.”
In addition, producers can improve their herds with technical tools already available, Field said. Genetic testing at $18 to $20 a head can help producers select bulls and heifers to breed for beef tenderness, yield and other traits, he said.
“You can move your herd to whatever your consumer is asking for,” Field said.
Lawrence, the West Texas A&M meat scientist, nonetheless believes in the research and what it could mean for herd improvement. Among other things, he thinks the work may uncover another trait potential.
“We may be selecting for better immune systems,” he said. “For an animal to be Prime and Yield Grade One simultaneously, it’s probably had no or very few bad days in its life. So are we selecting for (good health)?
“We’re moving the curve to higher quality and higher yield at the same time,” he said. “I think it’s very viable for the beef industry to find traits that are desirable and to propagate those.”