butchered beef

Beef from gene-hacked ‘super cows’ cleared to be sold in the US

This past March, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared beef from two gene-edited cattle low-risk and potentially safe to eat. They added that this kind of beef could possibly be on the market in two years. Called PRLR-SLICK cattle, they became genetically edited using a tool called CRISPR to shorten their hair to tolerate heat better. Although meat from these edited animals aren’t going to appear on store shelves in the near future, the FDA has already determined this kind of product as low-risk. As in, the FDA has given permission for the developer to begin marketing the product without further FDA testing.

“Today’s decision underscores our commitment to using a risk and science-based, data-driven process that focuses on safety to the animals containing intentional genomic alterations and safety to the people who eat the food produced by these animals,” said Steven M. Solomon, D.V.M., M.P.H., director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. “It also demonstrates our ability to identify low-risk IGAs that don’t raise concerns about safety, when used for food production…[1]

FDA Deems Gene-Edited Cattle “Low-Risk

The verdict of “low-risk” is not the same as “safe,” but it does mean the risk to safety is low enough for the FDA to not enforce further approval.

“[Low-risk assessments] are like speeding laws,” says Laura Epstein, senior policy adviser at FDA’s CVM. “If you’re going 1 mph over the speed limit, is somebody going to pull you over? Probably not, because you’re not really posing the kind of risk that somebody going 10 mph over the speed limit is. In the case of PRLR-SLICK cattle, we determined that they are really low risk. It doesn’t make sense for the FDA to use its limited resources on products we can see are a low risk.” [2]

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PRLR-SLICK cattle became the third green-lit genetically-altered animal, after salmon and pigs. Genetically altered crops, such as corn and soybeans, also got green-lit. But unlike the salmon and pigs, these cattle garnered approval a lot faster. This is mainly because their genetic makeup is similar to other cattle; plus, the short-hair gene appears naturally in other breeds.

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“In this particular case we were able to rely on molecular data demonstrating the IGAs were equivalent to mutations that are observed in conventionally bred cattle with the same phenotype or same trait,” said Heather Lombardi. She’s the director, Division of Animal Bioengineering and Cellular Therapies at FDA. “There’s evidence of a history of safety and no food safety concerns from the alteration or how it was introduced. There is also a low risk to the environment.”

How to Genetically-Edit Beef

Alison Van Eenennaam, Extension specialist in animal biotechnology and genomics at the University of California, explained that developers created a double-stranded break in the DNA helix to make this trait of shorter hair.

Editing allows you to go to a targeted location in the genome, to a particular gene that you want to modify and introduce a double-stranded break in the DNA,” says Van Eenennaam. “When the cell repairs, as cells do, and they see a double stranded break, you get a repair that’s not the same as what it was before. It was cut with genome editing reagents. And that can lead to an inactivation of the gene, basically knocking out that gene.”

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According to Van Eenennaam, the tool CRISPR uses a guide RNA that dictates where the “molecular scissors” should cut along the DNA strand.

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According to Dr. Steven Solomon, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, the review took several months. Although this beef has yet to enter the market, he said there’s no reason to label it differently than meat from other cattle. However, if the company wants to market genetically altered meat as having unique benefits, it would probably need the full approval process by the FDA. “This opens up a completely different pathway,” he said.

Also, the shorter-coat gene edit in the cattle can pass down to their offspring via semen and embryos. This can make meat production more sustainable and more humane for animals in warmer weather. However, the company has yet to expand on these claims. 

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The Future of the Meat Industry

Greg Jaffe specializes in biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He ascertained that the FDA is not clearing all genetically-altered animals from the more vigorous approval process. “They reinforce the idea that this is a case-by-case review,” he said. He added that the FDA should be more clear about what this approval process entails. This can help public acceptance of their decisions. Plus, it can prevent global trade issues if other countries decide to label gene-edited food. 

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Similarly, Jaydee Hanson, of the Center for Food Safety, stated the FDA should track this cattle for several generations to look for any potentially unwanted effects. [3]

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The future of the meat industry and gene editing is still uncertain. Adam Shriver, a bioethicist at the University of British Columbia, said, “There are a lot of these technological solutions on the horizon. Plant-based alternatives are getting better every year, and cultured meat is something that’s being worked on and gets a lot of discussion in the press. But I feel like gene editing is not debated as much in public, yet it also could have really dramatic implications. There needs to be a robust debate about what the future could look like.[4]

Read: Bill Gates Believes We Need to Stop Eating Beef to Avert Climate Change Disaster

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Sources

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  1. “FDA Makes Low-Risk Determination for Marketing of Products from Genome-Edited Beef Cattle After Safety Review.” FDA. March 7, 2022
  2. “WHAT ARE THE PRLR-SLICK CATTLE?Successful Farming. Madelyn OStendorf. March 26, 2022
  3. “Gene-edited beef cattle get regulatory clearance in US.ABC News. Candice Choi. March 8, 2022
  4. “Gene editing could upend the future of factory farming — for better or worse.Vox. Kenny Torrella. March 25, 2022
Sarah Biren
Freelance Writer
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender.
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