Ask someone to tell you what cloning is, and their explanation is likely to sound like something out of a science-fiction novel. Surely it would include scientists manipulating nature, splicing genes and creating beings from nothing more than a lock of hair or nail clippings. 

Most people think that clones are exact replicas of the original being, that the two react and develop precisely the same. Often there’s the anticipation that a freakish glitch will surface in a clone and it will need to be destroyed -- before it destroys.

It’s no surprise that cloning confuses and scares people. After all, it involves genetics, which is not exactly on most people’s top-10 list of easy-to-understand topics. (I’m guessing genetics doesn’t make the top 100.)

For most people, animal cloning came into view in 1997 when Scottish scientists produced Dolly, the first cloned sheep. It came back into focus at the close of 2006, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released the results of its five-year, risk-assessment analysis on animal cloning.

Essentially, FDA scientists have determined that there is no distinguishable difference between cloned animals and their “conventionally produced” counterparts. That means food from cloned animals could be approved for human consumption. It also means that FDA doesn’t think special labeling on such products is necessary.

But consumer and various other activist groups won’t let the labeling issue die without a vicious fight. We’re now about half way into FDA’s three-month, public-comment period, but the final approval process will be a long and treacherous one.

Former meat industry “friends,” like Carol Tucker Foreman, were quick to step forward with charges that FDA “ignored research showing that cloned animals result in more animal deaths and deformities than other reproductive technologies.” As director of the Consumer Federation of America, she vows to pressure food companies and supermarkets to refuse to sell food from cloned animals.

Currently, cloned animals in the research pipeline are voluntarily kept out of the food-supply chain.

Now, you might be thinking

“I don’t plan on using cloned technology, so there’s no link to my business and no need for concern.”

This debate will end up painting commercial meat and milk production with a single brush (and it will include the words “corporate” and “factory” farm.) It will be implied that if the meat isn’t labeled as “natural” or “organic” then it is likely from a cloned animal because that’s the black and white of it. Sadly, today’s consumers don’t need much encouragement to embrace that line of thinking.

People are generally uncomfortable with the notion of cloned animals producing their food. A Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology conducted a survey last fall, which showed that 64 percent of respondents didn’t like the idea. 

People are skeptical of what they don’t understand, and there is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to cloning.

“It (a clone) is not a genetically engineered animal,” says Barb Glenn, with the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “No genes have been changed, moved or deleted. It’s simply a twin that can be used for future matings to improve specific traits of a herd.”

There are three different types of cloning processes. In the case of animal cloning, the nucleus of a donor egg is removed and replaced with the DNA of a pig, for example. “A tiny electric shock coaxes the egg to grow into a copy of that animal,” Glenn says. This process is actually just another reproductive technology -- not unlike artificial insemination. 

Indeed, when (or if) cloned animals get the final green light, they will appear in breeding herds. The practicality of raising cloned animals in mass quantities in a swine finishing barn to be sold for human food doesn’t add up. At most, food would come from offspring of cloned animals. Yes, cloned breeding animals would eventually be culled, and that may call for some hard compromises -- at least at first. 

The point behind cloning is to more efficiently expand the production of animals with certain beneficial traits. For example, pigs that grow faster, are leaner or whose meat has superior nutrient content.

With the world’s population continuing its steady upward trend; as land and water use tightens; and as manure management, environmental issues and feedstuff supplies continue to raise concerns, it’s in our long-term interest to continue to find ways to produce more food with fewer animals.

It is in your best interest to become familiar with the details about animal cloning and prepare for the dialogue that you should be having with friends, neighbors and consumers. This is one topic that’s ripe for misunderstanding, and you should know by now how much damage misunderstanding can do to your business.