The Food Standards Agency (FSA) this week admitted that meat from a cloned cow’s offspring entered British food supplies. Sue Davies, Which? expert on food issues, answers our top eight questions on cloning.
1. What is cloning and why is it used?
Cloning is a way of producing genetically identical animals, allowing offspring to be produced from animals that have desirable characteristics. These may then be bred with other animals using more traditional breeding techniques.
The genetic material of a cell from an animal the breeder wants to make a copy of is swapped with the genetic material from a female animal’s egg so that it develops into an embryo. This is then transplanted into the uterus of a surrogate female to carry out the pregnancy.
2. How did meat and perhaps even milk enter British food supplies?
Cloning is already taking place in the US and other countries, but tracing the products of these animals, their offspring, embryos and semen can be difficult as they are traded internationally.
The animals that are being investigated originate from eight embryos from a cloned cow in the US. Four of these embryos resulted in male calves and four were female. As a result, meat and milk from the offspring of the clone entered the food chain.
3. Are there safety concerns around eating cloned food?
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that there are no new food safety issues raised by the use of clones or their offspring, compared with food from other animals. But the EFSA highlighted that there was limited data to assess the implications of cloning and could only give an opinion for cattle, pigs and their offspring.
4. Are there any animal welfare issues with cloning?
EFSA raised far more significant concerns around animal health and welfare issues. There’s an increased proportion of pregnancy failure in animals carrying clones, let alone the fact that their offspring are often larger in size. This means that caesareans are far more common for animals carrying clones.
5. Is there any way I can tell if I’m buying cloned food?
No. You wouldn’t be able to tell any difference, and since they shouldn’t be on the market, they’re not currently labelled in any way.
6. Are there any rules and controls around cloning?
There’s some confusion about this and EU legislation is a hot topic that’s under review. The FSA believes that these products have entered the food chain illegally, since it interprets existing legislation to mean that cloned animals must be assessed and approved before they can be sold.
7. What’s the public’s take on cloning food?
A Which? survey in February 2008 found that just 13% agreed that cloning should be used to produce animals for food production and 80% said that they would prefer to buy foods that were not produced using cloned animals.
Some 80% of those asked were concerned about eating dairy or other products from these animals and 91% thought that foods produced using cloned animals should be clearly labelled.
8. What does Which? think should be done about cloning?
It’s essential that consumers know what they’re eating and can decide whether or not to eat the products of clones or their offspring. It’s also important that food products from clones are approved before they go on sale and that they can be traced across the supply chain.
Until this is sorted out, products should not be on sale. We have been calling for the legislation to be clarified and tightened, and we’ll continue to lobby on this as EU discussions develop, as well as pushing for effective enforcement.