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Clone Farm Britain

Cloned meat has been sold on the UK high street, without a label of any kind to indicate its novel origin. Soil Association’s Pamela Brunton asks whether the problem with cloning is simply one of branding?

In the supermarket meat and dairy aisles, the packaging shows Fresians and flowers in setting sunlight; ‘Old McDonald’ with his toy-box farm is the busy shopper’s proxy for quality. But with cloned meat now sold on the UK high street, the gap between branding and reality is widening. So far, however, noone has chosen to brand their steak with vials of frozen bull semen or their milk with a soft focus Petri dish.

In August this year a farmer from Nairn, Scotland, claimed that milk from his herd of 96 Holstein Fresian cows, all offspring from cloned bulls bought in England, had entered the food supply. On investigation the UK government’s Food Standards Agency, who were assembled as a consumer food safety watchdog after the BSE crisis ten years ago, found that one bull and one calf had already been sold in UK butchers’ shops, and another bull exported to Belgium, but stopped a fourth carcass at the abbatoir. The farmer had done nothing illegal in buying and breeding from the bulls, but to sell them as food he should have applied to the FSA for a ‘novel foods’ license.

He didn’t, allegedly admitting that he thought if consumers knew the origins of the meat they just wouldn’t buy it. He had a point: research by the consumer group Which? and the FSA itself shows that four in every five of us are opposed to cloning animals for food and would rather not eat meat and milk from clones or their offspring. In terms of promoting what the public want, then, this incident shows there’s more than just an image problem with cloning; neither the law (it’s perfectly legal to import cloned embryos, semen, the animals themselves or the meat and milk from clones without having declared their methods of production) nor existing traceability systems are adequate to stop cloned food reaching the unwitting family dinner plate.

The FSA have been vocal about the safety of meat and milk from clones. Chief scientist Andrew Wadge says; “there is no evidence of food safety risk from meat and milk from healthy clones or their offspring.” The problem is that there is no evidence of safety, either; we lack research into the long-term implications of cloning for human and animal health. Available evidence is inadequate to say for sure that meat and milk from clones is safe for human consumption, and at this early stage it’s also impossible to say that we are not breeding genetic weaknesses into our food supply.

What we do know for certain, however, is that cloning is an animal welfare atrocity. It is still a highly inefficient process, with nine out of every ten cloned embryos failing to reach healthy adulthood. The process causes pain and suffering for the cloned animals; frequently born with organ, heart or breathing problems, or malformed muscles and skeletons and (most significantly for the health of the people eating their meat or milk) deficient immune systems. The surrogate mother endures an uncomfortable pregnancy, often with an oversized or malformed foetus and usually a Caesarean section.

We don’t need cloning to produce plentiful, high quality, safe meat and dairy; we have been doing so for centuries. The benefits of cloning accrue mostly to the biotechnology companies who can produce these expensive animals and the technology opens the door to other developments in food science labs, like genetic modification. Meanwhile, consumers and farmers lose out on choice and profit. The European parliament recently voted in favour of a complete ban on products from cloned animals, and legislation is to be debated later this year. For now, consumers who want to avoid eating products from clones or their offspring can choose organic; all EU organic standards prohibit the use of cloning or embryo transfer.

The FSA admits that there has never been an application for a ‘novel foods’ license for cloned food, and if it happens they are not yet clear what would appear on the label. David Cameron is an advocate of ‘honest’ labelling, so consumers can make their own mind. The trouble is, without strong rules and dedicated traceability s

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