Labelling meat and dairy products as 'clone-free' would cost billions: EC report
While no application for the marketing of food from clones has been submitted for novel food approval in the EU – and is not expected to within the next decade due to a mix of consumer resistance and industry indifference – the report admits the possibility that food derived from cloned offspring could be offered to consumers through meat and dairy imports from other countries, or through imported genetic materials used to breed animals in the EU.
This has prompted the Commission to investigate the cost and impact of a labelling system on food products that would allow consumers to know which products contain cloned material.
Traceability is possible- but expensive
Following a plenary vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg last September when MEPs voted to ban the use of products from all cloned farm animals and their descendants including imports, co-rapporteur Renate Sommer said: “Traceability is possible. There are pedigree books, breeding books, stock books available. I'd like to ask the European Commission to rethink this whole thing. Sometimes, politics has to set the limits.”
But the Commission report, drawn up in November last year but published this month, suggests that that traceability would not be possible using documentation processes alone, such as herd books, without laying the authentication system open to possible fraud. The use of electronic tagging and DNA testing would therefore be necessary – and could push the cost into the tens of billions.
Current farming and food processing systems do not provide for individual identification beyond the milking stage for the dairy sector – milk from different cows is mixed immediately after milking – or at the slaughter stage for all other animals. Such tracing capacities would therefore need to be developed from scratch.
And even if an individual link were kept at these stages, the report says, it would be lost during further processing, such as the production of minced meat or meat products.
“A clone offspring labelling obligation would trigger additional operating costs in the order of €10 billion per year if a DNA verification system were required, and around €800 million per year in the absence of such a system," the report reads.
“The scale of costs is sufficient to suggest that income and output levels in EU livestock production would be affected. These costs would be incurred even if there were no clone offspring in the livestock sector, and irrespective of the definition of clone offspring adopted.” [i.e. how many subsequent generations of clone derived offspring would also be considered a clone].
The brunt of these costs would be borne by the pig sector which would incur around 77% of the costs, followed by the sheep at 13%, and beef and dairy sectors at 8%.
By increasing production costs, the competitiveness of Europe's export market would also be hit, the report said.
Food industry and consumer groups have both spoken out against a labelling system – but for different reasons.
A spokesperson for industry lobby Food Drink Europe said that, in addition to the expense of a labelling system, it believed descendants of cloned animals are not considered clones and therefore labelling would not be meaningful.
But senior food policy officer at European consumer rights group BEUC, Camille Perrin, told FoodNavigator that most European consumers did not share this opinion.
“As the study itself notes, most European consumers refuse to eat food derived from clones and their offspring. The least they deserve is to be able to decide whether or not to buy such products. If they are denied this very choice, then the European Parliament’s stance seems the only way forward. That is such food should simply not find its way into EU supermarkets.”
In the case where a labelling system was put in place, Perrin said there was no reason why manufacturers who met consumer expectations and rejected clone animals should have to bear the additional costs.
“Just like with GM and nanotechnologies, those food makers who favour production methods consumers clearly reject should take on the traceability and labelling costs,” she added.
The UK's Food Standard's Agency has opposed mandatory labelling of clone-derived food products in the past on the grounds it would be "unnecessary and disproportionate, providing no significant food safety benefit to consumers.”
A Gallup poll conducted in 2008 found that 83% of Europeans surveyed said special labelling for clone-derived food was important.