On Monday, March 7, 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have given their approval for the sale of beef from gene-edited cattle in the United States, after concluding that these genetically modified animals “do not raise any safety concerns.”
The cattle were designed by Recombinetics – a Minnesota-based bioengineering company – to have short, slick coats that would make them more resistant to heat stress. The beef resulting from these animals could be available for human consumption in about two years.
These cattle are the third genetically altered animals which were approved for human consumption in the U.S., after salmon and pigs. Unlike these animals though, the cattle did not have to go through an extended, years-long approval process, since their genetic makeup is similar to that of existing cattle and the trait can even be found naturally in some breeds.
According to Dr. Steven Solomon, the director of FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, the agency’s review of Recombinetics’ cattle took only a few months, and there is no reason that meat from these animals should be labeled differently once it will start to be commercialized. However, he made clear that genetically altered animals marketed to have certain advantages – such as a considerably higher ability to withstand heat than their “natural” counterparts – may need to pass through the full approval process.
The gene-edited trait in these cattle can be inherited, so semen and embryos could be used to produce offspring with the same shorter, more heat-resistant coats. Once the semen is used to create embryos, gestation would take approximately nine months and the resulting calves could be slaughtered after about 10 more months. These genetic alterations could make beef production more sustainable and improve animal welfare in warmer climates.
While the speed with which FDA moved in this case was applauded by many scientists and industry leaders, others criticized the agency for the lack of transparency in the review process. For instance, Greg Jaffe, an expert in biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest argued that more transparency could lead to better public acceptance and minimization of potential economic disruptions from global trade (since other countries could consider these cattle genetically modified foods in need of labeling).
Moreover, Jaydee Hanson, the Policy Director of the Center for Food Safety, urged the FDA to keep track of the animals for several generations to ensure no unintended problems will arise.