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  1. Analysis
August 5, 2010

In the spotlight: The debate over cloned meat in the UK

The idea of science playing too obvious a role in food tends to leave a bitter taste in most European consumers' mouths.

The idea of science playing too obvious a role in food tends to leave a bitter taste in most European consumers’ mouths.

And selective breeding aside, the EU seems to have taken a strong stance against interfering with mother nature’s plans, preventing European farmers from selling meat or produce from cloned animals and approving few GM crops.

This week, the debate over cloning and food from such animals and their offspring has grown in the UK after it emerged that two bulls, the offspring of cloned cattle, have made it into the food chain, one last year and the other this year. The resulting media maelstrom suggests that many UK consumers are uncertain about accepting meat coming from ‘Frankenstein animals’.

The UK’s food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, has come under fire for its handling of the situation. The FSA prevented meat from a third bull from entering the food chain, claiming selling products from offspring of clones ran contrary to EU law. However, consumers remain confused as the FSA has insisted this meat is safe to eat.

However, it seems that the FSA may have been wrong in its assessment of the situation. A European Commission spokesperson tells just-food that the FSA had taken a “slightly stricter” interpretation of the EU’s ‘Novel Foods’ ruling than intended. According to the Commission, the meat from the offspring of a cloned bull did not need to be specially authorised for consumption.

The Commission spokesperson says, the Novel Foods law, which means that foods or ingredients that do not have a significant history of consumption in the EU before 15 May 2007 need to be rigorously assessed for safety, only applies to the cloned animal and not its offspring.

“As the offspring are created the normal way, there’s no need for anyone to be notified or for it to be authorised,” the spokesperson adds.

Moreover, the EU spokesperson stressed that all scientists indicate that there are no safety risks for people eating the meat from cloned animals or their offspring.

However, according to the European Food Safety Authority’s 2008 scientific opinion on animal cloning, the health and welfare of cloned animals is open to question. “The health and welfare of a significant proportion of clones, mainly within the juvenile period for bovines and perinatal period for pigs, have been found to be adversely affected, often severely and with a fatal outcome,” the report says.

The Commission spokesperson agreed there remained questions over the effect cloning had on animal welfare. “Whether we include direct offspring shouldn’t be a food safety issue, but more an ethical or welfare one,” the spokesperson says.

Peter Stevenson, chief policy advisor for lobby group Compassion in World Farming, argued that industrial farming has already pushed animals to their limit and that more widespread use of cloning would only further endanger the welfare of animals.

Stevenson tells just-food that selective breeding and industrial farming, which ensures that only the best milk producing cows are bred, means that they end up “so worn out and in such poor condition after just three milk cycles that they have to be culled”.

“Breeding has already been pushed to its limits and cloning will mean there’s a greater proportion of animals suffering,” he adds.

That said, widespread cloning is still a long way from becoming the norm anywhere, despite US approval for the technique. Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of microbiology at the University of Aberdeen, insists that commercial cloning is in its early days and that it is “too early to say if it is commercially viable” as the technology behind it “doesn’t work terribly well”.

Chris Warkup, director of Biosciences KTN, agrees the mass use of cloned animals is not around the corner. “Nobody is in a rush to use it [cloning] in any widespread way,” he says.

Cloning is being used commercially in three ways, Warkup explains. First, to clone very high-merit individuals that can then be spread out and used in a more widespread way, as in the case of the bulls at the centre of the current controversy. Second, to clone animals that are on the verge of becoming extinct, as in the case of the Enderby Island Cattle in New Zealand, which had been reduced to a one cow and its calf. And, thirdly, as a cost-effective way of bio-banking to help ensure biodiversity in the future.

Warkup does not expect cloned animals to become commonplace any time soon. “Nobody is expecting herds of cloned cattle any time in the near future as it’s too expensive and dangerous from a biodiversity standpoint,” Warkup stresses. “Progress in breeding requires variation and breeders are keen not to lose too much.”

However, Compassion in World Farming argues that cloning provides a threat to livestock genetic diversity, which, it claims, is already shrinking due to the development of artificial reproductive technologies. “Reduced genetic diversity increases the susceptibility of livestock populations to diseases and other risk factors. This raises the possibility of large numbers of animals succumbing to diseases to which they are susceptible, with potentially serious animal welfare, social and economic consequences,” a report from the group claims.

Neverthless, regardless of the ethics or welfare concerns about the science behind cloning, it seems as though customers – at least in the UK – may not yet be ready for produce created this way.

Professor Pennington, for one, questions whether people would be willing to buy accept produce from cloned animals and their offspring, a reluctance, he argues, is not helped by FSA and EU rules that are “a bit muddy at the moment”.

“People want to know what they’re buying” he says. “And it seems that the regulator has not designed the rules around this properly in the first place.”

The National Farmers Union echoed Pennington’s concerns about consumer confidence in the meat supply chain. “Public confidence is the NFU’s, and our farmer members’, absolute priority. We have invested a lot of time and money in our farm assurance schemes and our traceability systems, which are the best in the world. They are closely monitored by government authorities, including the Food Standards Agency,” says Kevin Pearce, NFU Head of food and farming.

“Every cow in the UK has an individual identification number and passport that accompanies it throughout its life. It can not enter the food chain without one. UK farmers are the primary producers of the majority of food sold in the UK and there is no point in us producing anything which consumers in this country do not want,” he adds.

However, it seems that US consumers do not share the same fears about the origin of their food. The Food and Drug Administration found in 2008 that the meat and milk from clones of cattle, pigs, goats and their offspring are as safe to eat as the food from conventionally bred animals. When it made its decision, it did not require producers to add additional labelling to products from cloned sources.

The European Commission is currently considering revising its Novel Food laws, and current proposals have it staying the same, although sources say that there is pressure from some member states to include first generation offspring under the law.

The Commissioner for Health and Consumer protection is currently working on a report due to be published in November on the use of cloning which will inform all further decisions on the sector.

Warkup suggested that many consumer fears about cloning are unfounded. “Cloning is an emotive word, even from a science-fiction perspective. But from a biologist’s perspective we’re already eating clones,” Warkup adds, referring to the fact that all of the bananas we eat are clones and that most apples are clones as they’re produced through grafting.

However, Stevenson is calling for a considered public debate on where our food comes from, as many “consumers are not aware of how food is being produced”. He is calling for the UK government to ban all cloned animals.

“I think we should nip it in the bud. In two-to-three years it will become normal and it will be difficult to stop it once it’s embedded. The time to stop it is now.”

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