MASS producing cloned pigs is about more than just the numbers but developing pigs with traits that could benefit health care research or yielding more pork for a growing global population.
While cloning technology is not new, the industrial scale of operations at the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) takes the science to a whole new level.
BGI was already the largest gene sequencing center in the world, and now, it also is the leading cloning center. At an old shoe factory in Shenzhen, China, BGI produces 500 cloned animals annually.
Although BGI is known for its gene sequencing research and elaborate machinery, it prefers to perform the cloning process by hand, or "handmade cloning."
In an interview, BGI chief scientist Dr. Yutao Du told BBC News that an assembly line of 30-50 people makes the large-scale cloning operation possible.
According to BGI, handmade cloning is a highly efficient, stable system with easier manipulation and lower cost than traditional cloning methods, which are all advantages that make the method easier for commercialization.
BGI chief executive Wang Jun explained to BBC that three categories — taste, industrial use and the "cute factor" — take priority in trait selections.
The company said the work at BGI is not about man's power over nature but, rather, following its cues.
Clearly, China is trying to fulfill domestic demand for animal protein while keeping pork prices low. Several key business maneuvers indicate the country's move to lessen its dependence on imports, including Shuanghui International's purchase of U.S. company Smithfield (Feedstuffs, Sept. 30, 2013).
China is "trying to meet the domestic demand for pork, and part of that is acquiring Smithfield to gain access to technology," Oklahoma State University agricultural economics professor Dr. Jayson Lusk said.
Lusk added that the acquisition can also be viewed as a way to gain trust in the pork product among Chinese consumers by toting a U.S. brand. Chinese consumers report a general concern for food safety in meat raised locally.
U.S. pork producers are one of the lowest-cost producers of pork and provide a safe food product, which is why the U.S. is the number-one exporter of pork in the world. In 2012, the U.S. exported a total of 2.3 million metric tons of pork, with China/Hong Kong being the third-largest destination for U.S. pork.
In a recent trade deal worth £45 million, the Chinese government purchased pig semen from Britain to improve the overall quality of the nation's stock. The shipments begin this month.
Also, Genesus, a Canadian company, recently completed two air deliveries of purebred registered breeding stock to China.
The U.S. importing meat products from Chinese cloned pigs is unlikely. The U.S. does not, at this time, import pork from China. Therefore, until the mass cloning of pigs starts to negatively affect U.S. prices or export volumes, business will continue as usual.
Consumer acceptance of eating meat from a cloned animal is still debatable.
In general, past research conducted on consumer attitudes toward farm animal cloning found that many consumers admitted to a lack of knowledge of the technology, and the concern influenced their willingness to buy meat or milk from cloned animals.
Likewise, in 2011, U.S. consumer perception research conducted by Lusk and Dr. Kathleen Brooks with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln concurred that consumers were resistant to purchasing meat or milk products from cloned farm animals.
Lusk, who researches consumer behavior as it relates to food, does not believe that overall consumer perception about cloning has changed.
Lusk said surveyed individuals were not supportive of U.S. public policy to actually ban the cloning of farm animals.
The study results can be interpreted to indicate that while U.S. consumers do not necessarily want to purchase products from cloned animals, they still support the science, Lusk added.
Nevertheless, the European Commission drafted three laws in December 2013 proposing bans on: cloning techniques for farm animals in the European Union, the import of animal clones and the marketing of food from animal clones. It is estimated that the draft legislation chain of approval will be completed, at the earliest, in 2016.
Lusk does not anticipate that the U.S. will join China in cloning pigs on an industrial scale anytime soon, mainly because consumer backlash could be harmful to profits.
"The pork industry is already worried about other consumer issues, whether it is gestation crates or antibiotic use," Lusk explained. "The pork industry is already fighting a battle on a lot of fronts."
For the pork industry to increase consumer demand, it must produce a product more cheaply by improving efficiency or quality. From a scientific standpoint, cloning can provide both.
Still, in general, consumers respond negatively to new and unfamiliar technologies. Lusk warned that any technology, on the whole, that is used in the food chain without consumer awareness is always detrimental to the marketplace.