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THE furore greeting the news last week that products from the offspring of cloned cattle had entered the UK food chain cannot be dismissed as a consequence of ‘silly season’ reporting by the media, nor can it be considered surprising. First, the products should not have entered the food chain in the first place, because, as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has pointed out, meat and products from clones and their offspring are considered ‘novel foods’ under European rules and producers would be expected to seek authorisation under the Novel Food Regulations before placing them on the market. In the instances reported, no authorisation seems to have been sought or granted. Secondly, consumers remain distinctly uneasy about foods derived from animals produced using new breeding technologies, as research undertaken for the FSA has already indicated.
The research, carried out by an independent market research organisation in 2008, focused specifically on cloning. On the basis of workshops held in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it found that, while participants were generally unaware of the various forms of assisted reproductive technologies currently in use, most people felt that animal cloning represented ‘a quantum leap from “giving mother nature a helping hand” to “interfering with mother nature”.’ Participants struggled to identify any convincing benefits of the technique for consumers,and felt that the only ‘winners’ were likely to be biotechnology companies, livestock breeders, farmers or food retailers.
As participants learned about the low efficiency of cloning, they became increasingly concerned about the implications for animal welfare, which became a significant factor behind their reluctance to accept food derived from clones and their offspring. They also had concerns about where the technology might lead, particularly in relation to human cloning. Many were worried that cloning could result in food that was unsafe for human consumption, fearing that the process of cloning might somehow create new diseases or affect the food in some way that would be harmful to humans. There were also concerns that cloning might impact on food quality, consistency, uniformity and price.
Underpinning many of these concerns was a lack of trust in the various players involved. It may well be, as the FSA pointed out last week, that ‘Based on the best available evidence, there are no food safety concerns surrounding consumption of products from healthy clones or their offspring’ and that, as the European Food Safety Authority said in an opinion in 2008, ‘No clear evidence has emerged to suggest any differences between food products from clones or their offspring, in terms of food safety, compared to products from conventionally bred animals. But we must acknowledge that the evidence base, while growing and showing consistent findings, is still small.’ However, as experience has repeatedly shown, public perception is all important and, as the FSA’s market research report commented two years ago, ‘Unless the mismatch in perceptions about the required method of assessing food safety can be addressed, the public are likely to harbour major concerns that such food is unsafe to eat.’
Another finding of the market research was that consumer confidence might be improved if it could be shown that processes were being properly regulated. In this instance, it will be of little comfort to anyone to know that regulations exist but appear not to have been followed. The incidents should encourage the Government to at least pause for thought as it moves towards a more voluntary approach to controls within the food industry.
Food safety is one issue, animal welfare is another. As far as the animal welfare aspects of cloning are concerned, the Government might usefully consider revisiting a report produced by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) in 2004 on the welfare implications of new and existing breeding technologies. The report made a number of recommendations, most of which were rejected by the previous government (VR, August 4, 2007, vol 161, p 145). Among them was the suggestion that ‘a standing committee [should] be established for the evaluation of new and existing breeding technologies, as well as for the consideration of welfare and ethical problems arising as a result of livestock breeding programmes’. The idea of setting up such a committee might not be in tune with the current government’s philosophy but it could be useful nevertheless. For example, it could help to determine how far removed an animal needs to be from a cloned ancestor before it can be considered ‘normal’. Another recommendation in the FAWC’s report concerned targeted surveillance of farms where new breed types or new breeding technologies are first introduced, and it would seem that this, too, is an area that might usefully be revisited.