The cloned steak was served medium rare.
Inside the unusually hushed atrium of Campanile, the guests lifted slices of beef onto their plates. Executive chef Mark Peel had prepared the porterhouse with fleur de sel and cracked black pepper before pan-searing it with a little canola oil -- a simple preparation to highlight the meat’s natural flavor.
It was the centerpiece of a dinner party convened to taste the future of food.
After years of research, meat and milk from cloned animals and their offspring are moving toward supermarkets, restaurants and backyard barbecues. The Food and Drug Administration recently declared the fare safe to eat, although it took scientists 678 pages to make their case. They said the meat was so much like regular beef that special labeling would be unnecessary.
Thousands of consumers, unswayed by the promise of genetically superior steaks, have written the agency in opposition. Still, cloned products could become part of the food supply by year’s end.
The general public has been shielded from cloned meat by a voluntary moratorium issued by the FDA in 2001. But six intrepid diners agreed to participate in cloned beef’s debut on the culinary scene in a private dinner convened by The Times.
Several prospective diners declined the invitation.
Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation” and self-described omnivore, said: “I’d rather eat my running shoes than eat meat from a cloned animal.”
Spago chef Lee Hefter, who recently opened the Beverly Hills steakhouse Cut, agreed to host this dinner before abruptly changing his mind.
“I don’t want people to think that I would ever use it,” he said. “I don’t want to condone cloned beef. I don’t want to eat it. I don’t want it in my kitchen.”
But Evan Kleiman, host of the weekly radio show “Good Food” on KCRW, accepted the invitation in spite of her initial revulsion at the idea of eating cloned meat.
USC sociologist Barry Glassner, author of “The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong,” was so enthusiastic he asked whether his wife could join the party.
In the kitchen, Peel laid out the porterhouse steaks on his stainless steel worktable, along with packages of ground chuck and sirloin, which he molded into thick patties and sprinkled with salt and pepper.
The cloned meat, provided by the Collins Cattle ranch in Frederick, Okla., was accompanied by corresponding cuts of conventional beef. All were prepared in identical fashion. Peel’s idea was to conduct a double-blind taste test -- a 21st century version of the Pepsi Challenge.
“I’m actively trying not to guess,” he said as he prepared his cast-iron skillets and copper sauteuses. “I don’t want to say, ‘This one feels more supple, this one feels less supple.’ My hypothesis is that they will be very close, if not identical.”
As the dinner guests sampled caramelized onion tarts with feta cheese, Peel considered whether cloned beef was the most unusual thing he’d prepared since his landmark restaurant opened in Los Angeles 18 years ago.
“Yes,” he said. “I think so.”
First course: the science
THE guests took their seats at the well-appointed table and began munching on grissini and sipping glasses of Bandol red wine.
UC Davis animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam pulled out a photo of a stout, jet-black Chianina bull from Canute, Okla., named Full Flush -- one of the most sought-after sires of recent times.
“He was not able to satiate the desire for his semen,” Van Eenennaam noted.
She passed around a photo of five identical calves in a pen. These clones were created for $50,000. One of them fathered the steer that Peel was cooking.
If cloned meat does enter the food supply, nearly all of it will be like this steak -- from the offspring of a clone, not a clone itself. Everyone calls it “cloned” meat anyway.
“It’s $15,000 or so to clone a cow, and cows are worth maybe $2,000,” Van Eenennaam said.
She explained the cloning process:
Eggs are culled from slaughtered cows and matured in lab dishes. “Then you can take the DNA from the slaughtered animal out of there and put in the DNA of whatever animal you want to clone,” she said. “You tell that egg to start producing an embryo, and so it does.”
The process, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, is merely the latest version of cloning to be embraced by ranchers.
Identical twins are clones of each other, and scientists have been fertilizing eggs in test tubes and splitting them manually to make twins, triplets and quadruplets for more than 20 years. They also have been making clones of animal embryos created through in vitro fertilization for nearly as long.
“They are in the food supply, and no one’s worried at all about them,” Van Eenennaam said.
Public television personality Huell Howser leaned across the table. “So cloning actually has many definitions?” he asked.
“Cloning means you’re genetically identical to the thing next to you,” Van Eenennaam replied. “This particular branch of cloning -- somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning from an adult animal -- is one little branch of cloning, and it is the one that everyone’s upset about.”
The first batch of steaks was brought to the table, sliced and arranged on simple white platters. Then came the burgers, served without the usual buns and condiments.
Nothing about their appearance hinted at which beef was cloned and which was conventional. All that distinguished them were the “A” and “B” labels taped to the serving platters.
When the roasted fingerling potatoes were served, Van Eenennaam joked: “Are they cloned?”
Glassner set aside his beef. “Those are good taters.”
Public relations problem
NOT wanting to distract from the main course, Chef Peel chose mild side dishes -- the potatoes, roasted carrots, sauteed blue-footed and hedgehog mushrooms, and early spring English peas with pea tendrils.
“When you have such a divisive issue, it’s important to have peas,” Peel said, joining the table.
“Would you put cloned beef on your menu? And advertise it as such?” Howser asked.
Yes, if the beef was safe and tasty, Peel said. Then again, “If I put ‘Porterhouse from the progeny of cloned beef’ [on the menu], I would think that would be a problem,” he said. “Chilean sea bass would still be alive and well today if it went by its actual name, Patagonian toothfish.”
Consumers would feel queasy about a lot of foods if they knew more about how they got to their tables, said Gregory Jaffe, director of the project on biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who traveled from Washington, D.C., for the meal.
“If they knew their chicken was raised in a 1-foot-by-1-foot box, they wouldn’t want it, either,” he said.
But the dinner guests agreed that cloned beef presented a unique public relations problem.
“The word ‘cloning’ has a lot of electricity to it because of books, film, television,” Peel said.
Kleiman acknowledged that science-fiction movies colored her perception of the technology. “You get this image in your head of all these steaks that are in a room,” she said. “Not cows, but individual little steaks.”
This wasn’t the first time a food technology had been stymied by skepticism. Louis Pasteur faced similar opposition in the 1800s, when he touted the scientific benefits of heating milk to kill harmful microorganisms, Jaffe said. It took decades for pasteurization to catch on.
“They said it was unnatural, it was against God,” he said.
Is it even safe?
THE meal was half over before anyone asked the central question that had occupied FDA scientists for six years.
“Is there something there that is a health issue?” Howser asked.
Van Eenennaam said about 100 cloned cattle have been studied in great detail, with scientists scrutinizing the vitamins, minerals, proteins, amino acids and other essential nutrients in their meat and milk. “It was in the bounds of regularly produced cattle,” she said.
But the technology is far from perfect. Most attempts at cloning fail, leading to death in utero or shortly after birth. Animals that are old enough to produce milk or be slaughtered, however, are “not distinguishable from other animals that aren’t cloned,” she said.
Those conclusions haven’t swayed consumers. A survey last year by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 64% of Americans were uncomfortable with animal cloning.
“Even though there’s a big gulf between cloning Full Flush and cloning you, there is that fear in the back of people’s minds that we’re going to cross that bridge,” Peel said. “As crazy as it might sound, it’s what some people are concerned about.”
Glassner, the sociologist, was quick to assign blame for what he perceived as scare-mongering. “It comes from politicians and advocacy groups that make the association.”
Kleiman pounded her fist on the white tablecloth. “Oh, that is so wrong!”
“You think the word ‘clone’ just came out of the sky and we’re afraid of it?” Glassner responded. “There are a lot of interests that benefit from the hysteria. Politicians sound like they’re for safe food, and they’re going to protect us from this Frankenstein future that we hear about. And beyond that, there is a premium that many people will pay for meat that’s labeled as noncloned. The organic industry -- they’re thrilled about this.”
“To me,” Kleiman said, “it’s the idea of tinkering and tinkering to a point where we can never pull back.”
“Why does this particular tinkering bother you?” Glassner inquired. “Why not changes in automotive technology, for example? It’s because you put it in your mouth, right?”
“Of course,” Kleiman said. “It becomes a part of me.”
Seeking to appease constituents like Kleiman, politicians from Sacramento to Washington have introduced bills to require labeling of meat and milk from cloned animals and their offspring. Other legislation would disqualify cloned goods from meeting U.S. organic standards.
It all seemed futile to Howser.
“It’s like tobacco companies worrying about what kind of antismoking law they pass in California, when all they have to do is go to China and sell 4 billion packs of cigarettes a week,” he said. “The cloning genie is out of the bottle. It’s going to happen in food distribution systems where people who eat the food could care less whether it’s labeled this or that. It’s just something that’s going to keep them alive.”
And the taste test ...
AFTER the plates were cleared, the guests rendered their verdicts on cloned beef.
“I didn’t taste a difference,” Jaffe said.
“None whatsoever,” Howser said.
“I liked B better,” Peel said, “but I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to which was cloned.”
“I thought they tasted identical,” Glassner said.
“I couldn’t taste any difference,” Van Eenennaam said.
“Indistinguishable,” Kleiman said.
It turned out the “A” burgers and the “B” steaks were cloned. But by the time the triple-sealed envelopes were opened to reveal which were which, the taste test had lost its urgency.
As the last of the ice cream melted over remnants of chocolate tart, the conversation had shifted to the prospect of a trade war with Europe.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Around the table
The Times obtained steaks and ground beef from the Collins Cattle ranch in Frederick, Okla. The meat came from the offspring of a cloned steer.
The steaks and ground beef were taken to Huntington Meats in the Farmers Market, where they were matched with conventional meat. The two sets of beef were delivered to Campanile in identical plastic packaging with only the labels “A” or “B.” Both sets of meat were identically prepared by executive chef Mark Peel. The cloned meat was revealed at the end of the meal.
Barry Glassner, USC sociologist and author of “The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong”
Huell Howser, host of “California’s Gold” on public television
Greg Jaffe, director of the project on biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.
Evan Kleiman, host of “Good Food” on KCRW and executive chef of Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles
Mark Peel, executive chef of Campanile
Alison Van Eenennaam, UC Davis animal geneticist
Leslie Brenner, Times Food editor
Ashley Dunn, Times Science editor
Betty Hallock, Times assistant Food editor
Karen Kaplan, Times staff writer
Caramelized onion tart with feta cheese
Roasted fingerling potatoes
Sauteed hedgehog and blue-footed mushrooms
Early-spring English peas with pea tendrils
Chocolate tart with chocolate-cocoa-nib ice cream and chocolate sauce
Daphne Malvasia prosecco-style sparkling wine from Medici Ermete
Domaine Tempier Bandol 2003