Selling meat and milk from cloned animals and their offspring is a step nearer after a team of government advisers said it is safe to consume, writes science Correspondent Julian Rush.
Highly controversial, embryos of cloned animals are used to breed livestock, but this practice came under intense scrutiny during the summer when it emerged meat and milk from the offspring of cloned cows had reached UK shops.
But today the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) said there is no evidence of any difference between cloned animal produce and conventionally-bred cattle produce.
Food Standards Agency Chief Scientist Andrew Wadge said: “In considering this hypothetical application, the ACNFP has confirmed that meat and milk from cloned cattle and their offspring shows no substantial difference to conventionally produced meat and milk and therefore is unlikely to present a food safety risk.”
More evidence is still needed, said the committee, to show how rearing animals in different environments may affect the meat and milk.
The conclusion is that any potential differences between cloned animals and conventional animals was unlikely to exist beyond second generations.
Foodstuffs, including milk, produced from cloned animals have to pass safety evaluations and get approval under European law before they can be marketed.
Cloned meat: the future of food?
No meat or milk from cloned cows or their offspring are officially on sale in Britain...yet.
But dairy and meat farming is changing, writes Science Correspondent Julian Rush, and moving fast towards a high-tech, high-intensity industry that sees cloning as a way of guaranteeing the genetic traits of cows that consistently deliver high milk yields or quality meat. It will only be a matter of time before an application is made to the Food Standards Agency.
Scientifically, the ACNFP is right: there is currently no evidence there's any difference between milk and meat from cloned animals or their offspring and conventionally-bred cows. But these are early days in a rapidly advancing field and unintended consequences may yet emerge.
But food safety is not the only issue.
The most recent in-depth research of the FSA of public attitudes, carried out two years, revealed that most peoples' concerns weren't so much over food safety but over animal welfare and ethics. Few saw any benefit for the consumer in cloning and most saw the main motive for the technology as financial, benefitting biotech companies, livestock breeders, farmers and retailers. There was little trust in scientists, food companies, farmers, retailers and government.
While most people accepted that farmers actively manage breeding to get the "best" animals, they saw cloning as a quantum leap from "giving mother nature a helping hand" to "interfering with mother nature".
They were particularly worried about the evidence that cloning is inefficient, often resulting in still-born or damaged animals, though the techniques are slowly improving.
Animal welfare groups like Compassion in World Farming argue that cloning will only encourage the move to industrialised dairy and cattle farming, with the animal welfare problems they say that means.
The trouble is, food regulations have been overtaken by the science. They don't take into account welfare or ethical concerns, nor do labelling regulations allow for mandatory labels relating to farming methods or breeding techniques that would allow customers to make an informed choice.
Crucial will be the supermarkets because of their buying power. For the moment, most say they won't sell milk or meat from cloned animals or their offspring.
In December the Food Standards Association will discuss the outcome influencing Britain’s negotiations on the issue in Europe.
The ACNFP opinion will be considered by the board, as will the recent European Commission proposal to ban meat and milk from clones and their offspring and any other developments, before they give ministers advice.
EU member stats will need to interpret the law on novel foods any changes in position may take some time.
A spokesman said: “It is for individual member states to interpret European law but obviously, we differ from the Commission on this, which is why we asked for clarity from Europe.
“I don’t think we can put a time frame on this. I don’t think it will be anything immediate.”
Two bulls born in the UK from embryos harvested from a cloned cow were slaughtered earlier this year, one of which “will have been eaten”, while the other was prevented from entering the food chain.
The FSA said it had neither made any authorisations nor been asked to do so.
Anti-cloning campaigners said more investigations are needed to assess the long-term risks and ethical issues associated with the farming practice.
A Soil Association spokeswoman said: “There are many unanswered questions on the issue of cloning animals – both ethical and practical – and insufficient regulation.
“Not only does cloning have a negative impact on animal welfare, we also have no long-term evidence for the impacts on health.”