Cloned Food Feeds Controversy in Britain

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A furor erupted in Britain this week after The New York Times reported that an unnamed British dairy farmer had sold milk from a cow produced from a cloned parent.  Britain’s food watchdog, The Food Standards Agency, launched an immediate investigation and announced yesterday that it had found that, in fact, meat from the offspring of a cloned cow had entered the UK food chain.

Americans might say: what’s the big deal? Cloned cattle and their offspring are safe to eat, according to a review by the Food and Drug Administration in 2008. And cloned meat is legal even in Europe, which has long had an aversion to genetically modified crops (cloned animals are not technically genetically modified, they are simply copies of existing animals, but any use of advanced bio science for food production is controversial in Europe). But according to the European Union,  anyone who wants to market meat or dairy products from clones would need to seek permission under the E.U.“novel foods” regulations. According to the NYT, “Meat and dairy products from the offspring of clones, however, currently receive no prior assessment or approval.”

That’s not how the FSA sees it. An FSA spokeswoman told the BBC that: “Since 2007 the FSA interpretation of the law has been that meat and products from clones and their offspring are considered novel foods and would therefore need to be authorized before being placed on the market. The agency will … investigate any reports of unauthorised novel foods entering the food chain.”

Advocates of cloning say it is “the most recent evolution of selective assisted breeding in animal husbandry, a practice dating back to the dawn of time.” They say that it allows livestock farmers to select genetically superior animals even when they are past breeding age, thus maximizing meet productivity and quality. They also argue that it is part of the application of breakthroughs in life sciences (which, yes, include GM) that can help maintain a stable and more-environmentally friendly food supply.

Not everyone is convinced. According to the BBC,  ” The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is one of a number of organizations that opposes cloning for food production, with the charity’s opposition on animal welfare and ethical grounds.”

“Cloning has huge potential to cause unnecessary pain, suffering and distress which cannot be justified by purely commercial benefits,” an RSPCA spokesman told the BBC

But British geneticists and other scientists also weighed in, pointing out that cloned food is already sold without protest in Britain—most bananas are clones.

“I am not going to say that this story is bananas, as there could be some other issues, such as whether or not FSA and EU regulations have been complied with, and about the welfare of the cows used to make the clones and the cloned cows themselves,” Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, Head of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the National Institute for Medical Research told Reuters. “I suspect the latter were very well looked after as they are valuable. As Abbie Hoffmann said: sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.