Earlier this month, the FDA approved genome-edited cattle for use in meat production. They were bred with climate change in mind, and they have extremely slick, short hair, which is said to help the animals cope with hot weather more effectively.
The cattle breed, known as PRLR-SLICK, was developed using a genome-editing technique called CRISPR, which is used to breed animals with specific traits. Unlike genetically modified organisms (GMO), which typically involve adding genetic material from other organisms and result in a plant or animal that would not exist in nature, gene-editing utilizes genes already native in a species, resulting in an organism that could, theoretically, occur through a natural breeding process.
The federal agency called the decision to introduce the beef cattle to be raised for meat “low risk” after determining that the intentional genomic alteration (IGA) of the cattle does not cause any safety concerns. Pending a forthcoming safety review, the meat could land on shelves in as little as two years.
In a press release, the FDA explained that IGAs are “alterations made using molecular technologies that introduce changes to the genome of an animal.” According to Successful Farming, a “precision breeding” company called Acceligen in Minnesota is responsible for utilizing the CRISPR technique to produce the slick-coat cattle. It’s not the first to use the technology on cows, however. In 2020, researchers at UC Davis used CRISPR technology to breed a cow, named Cosmo, designed to produce 75-percent male offspring.
In the past, the FDA has approved similar genetic modifications in salmon, goat, chicken, rabbit and, most recently, pigs. However, the PRLR-SLICK cattle are the first to receive an official “low-risk determination for enforcement discretion,” meaning the administration deemed there are no practical differences in the final product (meat) made by the gene-edited cattle and conventionally bred cattle.
With the slick-coat trait occurring naturally in some cattle, the gene-edited cattle are the same—as far as a consumer is concerned—as other cattle with the same traits. “Further, the food from the cattle is the same as food from conventionally bred cattle that have the same slick-hair trait,” said the FDA.
The FDA reviewed genomic data and other information provided by the developer to reach its safety determination.
Steven Solomon, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, said in the press release that the decision will likely pave the way for future gene editing. “We expect that our decision will encourage other developers to bring animal biotechnology products forward for the FDA’s risk determination in this rapidly developing field, paving the way for animals containing low-risk IGAs to more efficiently reach the marketplace.”
Farmers that plan to use the PRLR-SLICK cattle will not have to register with the administration.