Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Cloned meat headed for EU menus as talks break down

Three years of negotiations over banning the use of cloned animals for food in the EU broke down early this morning after member states and the European Parliament could not come to an agreement. The parliament wanted to ban meat from both cloned animals and their offspring, while the national governments insisted the ban should only apply to the cloned animals themselves.

Health campaigners have said enacting a ban just on cloned animals is useless because a cloned animal is so expensive to produce it would never be used for meat. The main purpose of cloned animals is to produce genetically superior babies, and it is the offspring that would be intended to end up in your sandwich. During negotiations the parliament offered a compromise to just have labelling of meat that comes from cloned animals or their offspring, but member states said they could only agree to such labels for beef. Beef is already heavily labelled and tracked because of previous mad cow scares. The parliament negotiators said no deal.

Member state governments and the European Commission have stressed that scientific studies have shown there is no difference between eating meat from a cloned animal and eating meat from a regular animal. But the campaigners say there has not been enough time to demonstrate the possible health hazards that can be present in the cloned animals and their offspring. There are also concerns about the consequences of reducing genetic diversity in farmed livestock, for example in resisting the outbreak of disease. Many members of the European parliament (MEPs) have objected to the practice on animal health and welfare grounds. Only 7% of cloned animals survive after 150 days and those that do often can't walk or are plagued with debilitating illnesses.

Because both the parliament and the council have adopted second opinions on this, EU rules stated that they had to come to an agreement by today or the entire legislation would die. That legislation, the Novel Foods Regulation, was actually a larger package of regulations on new ways of producing food such as through the use of nanotechnology, and a centralised and quicker authorisation procedure to facilitate innovation in the food industry. Agreement had been reached on all these other points, but the cloning issue proved too divisive. The commission will now re-table the Novel Foods Regulation without the cloning element.

Had the novel foods regulation passed the EU would have been the first in the world to explicitly ban meat from cloned animals. In 2006 the US Food and Drug Administration approved the consumption of meat and dairy from cloned animals, saying that they are indistinguishable from products from non-cloned animals. They also ruled out any labelling scheme that would require companies to inform consumers when meat comes from a cloned animal. As of yet however there is only one instance in the world of a cloned animal being sold and eaten as meat - and that was largely for publicity purposes.

Of course the EU thinks quite differenty to the US when it comes to consumer protection, as is evidenced by the bloc's unique rules on genetically modified crops and food safety. The EU tends to follow the 'precautionary principle' when it comes to consumer protection, restricting the use of products or food if they cannot be proven to be safe or healthy, even if no proof exists that they are harmful. It will be interesting to see what the Novel Foods Regulation looks like once the commission re-tables it. A 2008 Eurobarometer survey found that 58% of EU citizens think cloning for food production is "unjustified", while 83% said foods from cloned animals should be labelled. 63% said that it was "unlikely" they would buy such food if they saw from the label that it was cloned.

With such public sentiments, this issue is not likely to go away in the EU. But with no scientific evidence showing that food from cloned animals is harmful, would a ban just be cow-towing to an irrational fear from the public? In a debate where sound science is in short supply, there are plenty of opinions on either side.

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