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16 Jan 2008 07:24
United States farmers have been given the green light to produce cloned meat for the human food chain. In a 968-page report billed as a “final risk assessment” of the technology, the US Food and Drug Administration has concluded that healthy cloned animals and products from them such as milk are safe for consumers.
Although the announcement in effect removes the final regulatory barrier to selling cloned meat in the US it is likely to be years before meat from cloned animals or their progeny is sold in stores.
The announcement follows the launch of a public consultation on the issue by the European Food Safety Authority.
Its “draft opinion” on the technology gave provisional backing on the grounds that there was no evidence for food safety or environmental concerns.
Scientists stress that cloning will not be used to create herds of identical animals that are themselves destined for the dinner plate. Rather it will be used as a breeding tool to create high-value breeding animals with desirable traits such as disease resistance or a faster growth rate. It is the progeny of clones that could potentially reach dinner plates.
“At this stage, in terms of commercial food production it’s not going to be beneficial because it’s such an expensive process,” said Helen Ferrier, the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) food science adviser. The NFU has adopted a wait-and-see attitude to the technology but she added: “Generally our views on the safety or the acceptability etc are really based on the opinions of independent scientific experts.”
If cloning is adopted, though, she said the NFU did not favour labelling cloned meat. “If the product is absolutely the same as its equivalent but using a different system it’s not necessarily very useful to label it because it’s misleading to the consumer and it’s impossible to enforce.”
Critics of using cloning in agriculture point out that the method used to create identical animals—essentially the same used to produce Dolly the sheep—is inefficient, with a significant proportion of embryos not developing to maturity. Even some apparently successful cloned embryos are prone to severe developmental problems after birth. Scientists say the loss rates are coming down as the technology improves.
“It’s a technology that has arisen out of a huge burden of animal suffering and that is still going on,” said Joyce D’Silva, of Compassion in World Farming. But she said even if the embryo loss rates were brought down to acceptable levels, the technology would be detrimental to animal welfare. “It looks like it is going to be used to produce the most highly productive animals—the cows that produce the most milk, the pigs with the meatiest bodies. These are the high-producing animals that have the most endemic welfare problems anyway.”
Scientists counter that cloning can be used to enhance animal welfare, for example by spreading useful genetic mutations that make animals resistant to diseases such as scrapie. Another possible use would be to keep cells on ice from rare breeds that have gone out of fashion. These cells could be cloned to produce adult animals in future, preserving a genetic heritage which could be used to adapt farm animals to changing climate or new diseases. The technology could also be used to produce identical replacements for high-value animals such as breeding bulls if they were injured.
D’Silva is concerned that cloned meat could enter the European food chain even if consumers reject it. Theoretically, that would be illegal because food imported into the UK, for example, must be produced to the same standards as food produced here. However, cloned meat is essentially identical to non-cloned meat, so the rule would be impossible to enforce.
At a briefing on the technology last year, the cloning expert Professor Keith Campbell, of Nottingham University, who was part of the Dolly team, said: “With cloning we can actually collect cells from these animals, store them and bring them back from the dead, so to speak. We can then use them in breeding programmes ... It’s a way of maintaining rare breeds without having to maintain the animals.”
Even if cloned meat were given approval by the European agency it would have to undergo rigorous testing. “Under the novel foods regulation, the applicant has to provide evidence of safety—this could be in the form of a detailed comparison with the existing product, or it could be the results of tests in animals,” said a spokesperson for the UK’s Food Standards Agency. It would also be subject to approval by the European commission, which would require a majority vote of EU member states. Approval in the EU is likely to be years away, if at all. - Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008
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