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Commission to be quizzed on cloning safety, ethics

By Jess Halliday , 29-Aug-2008

The debate over products from cloned animals entering the European food chain will enter a new phase next week, as MEPs ask the Commission searching questions about the welfare of cloned animals, ethics, and consumer information.

The European Commission has previously said that meat and milk from cloned animals are “expected to spread within the global food as early as 2010”, according to a Parliament communiqué. Indeed, the bloc’s risk assessor, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), concluded in its final opinion in July that food products from cloned pigs and cattle are “probably” safe.

However, it warned that the data available was 'limited'. Most of the studies conducted to date have been of small sample size and there is little information on animals remaining alive for considerable periods.

The prospect has met with strong resistance from the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee. In June, it called for the Commission to propose a ban on animal cloning and the marketing of products from cloned animals and their offspring – a resolution was approved by the MEP Intergroup on Animal Welfare.

The committee is now preparing to pose pertinent questions to the Commission next Tuesday, at the first September plenary. The questions it has agreed must be answered are:

  • Does the Commission share the view that cloning adversely affects animal welfare?
  • Can the Commission provide long-term animal welfare and health indications for clones and their offspring?
  • What has the Commission done to date in order to inform consumers and promote public discussion on animal cloning?
  • Does the European Commission find the cloning of animals and their offspring for food ethically justified?
  • Does the Commission plan to come forward with concrete proposals to prohibit: animal cloning for food; imports of cloned animals, their offspring and semen; and products from cloned animals or their offspring?

Neil Parish, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said: “[Cloned] animals suffer from many more ailments and generally live far shorter lives. From an agricultural perspective, there are serious questions over the effect of this on the gene pool, making cloned animals far more susceptible to disease.”

High cost of cloning

The animal cloning process uses DNA technology to produce multiple, exact copies of a single gene or other segment of DNA. The resulting animal has exactly the same genetic make-up as another currently or previously existing animal. It could allow breeders to introduce strains of animals with increased disease resistance and other qualities.

It is unlikely, however, that actual clones would be used for food in large quantities, given the very high costs associated with cloning (said to be between US$15,000 and $20,000 per animal at present).

Rather, clones of the very best breeding stock are expected to be used to produce high quality offspring destined for human consumption or milk production. Cloned animals themselves would form only a "miniscule" part of the food supply only when they come to the end of their useful lives.

A number of food companies in the US have said that they will not use cloned meat and milk in their products as the science is still so new; some however, such as Smithfield, have said they will monitor the emerging science.

Consumer attitudes

Consumer resistance is bound to pose a problem to the marketing of produce from clones or their offspring, especially given the level of public feeling against genetically-modified plant foods in Europe.

A survey released at the beginning of the summer by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed that UK consumers believe risk analysis on animal cloning and products from cloned animals and their offspring entering the food chain should be as thorough as drug research.

Particular areas of concern for consumers related to what benefits they may receive from consuming the products, and what the consequences may be.

"[Those surveyed] struggled to find any tangible consumer benefits", said the FSA, and the respondents expressed concern that the main motive would be "financial, for biotech companies, livestock breeders, farmers or food retailers."

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