Clone on the range: Is food from cloned animals already on our shelves, and if so, does it matter?

On Newmeadow Farm near Nairn in Invernesshire, the Innes family is in a state of shock. For the past week, Calum and his son Steven have been at the eye of a storm over the cloning of animals, which has damaged their reputation and may leave them hundreds of thousands of pounds out of pocket.

Since it emerged they sold meat from a bull - whose mother, Vandy K Integ Paradise 2, was a clone - the owners of the largest Holstein Cattle herd in the Highlands have found themselves at the epicentre of the UK's latest food scare.

Though not even the Food Standards Agency claims there are any health concerns over eating beef or drinking milk from the progeny of cloned cattle, the Inneses could be hit be a heavy fine for failing to seek authorisation to sell the "novel" food (food with no significant history of consumption within the EU).

Worse still, 96 dairy cows sired by the bull, Dundee Paratrooper, and another bull, Dundee Perfect, born to the same clone, may have to be culled. They are said to be worth around 350,000.

The farmers could apply for authorisation to sell the cows' milk (when they finally reach milking age) but with consumers still squeamish over the whole concept of cloning and supermarkets pledging not to stock products from cloned animals or their offspring, who would buy it?

To some, the Inneses are simply paying the price of man's obsession with messing with nature. But to others they are victims of a bureaucratic muddle and the public's reluctance to embrace a new and potentially beneficial technology.

After all, the family - and the farmer who originally imported the bulls from the US as embryos - say they acted in good faith. Though cloning itself is outlawed in the EU, it is not illegal to buy or keep cloned animals or their progeny.

The bulls' passports (the detailed documentation introduced in the wake of the BSE affair) were up to date and the Inneses say they believed this meant they were certified fit for human consumption.Consumers' scepticism may be fuelled by memories of Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned animal created at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh in 1996, who was put down at the relatively youthful age of six after she developed arthritis and lung disease (her cells showed signs of premature ageing).

But genetics experts point out that cloning already exists in nature (with identical twins), that many fruit and vegetables we eat are clones, and that successive studies have found nothing to suggest the meat and milk from the descendants of clones differs in any way from more conventionally-bred cattle.

Moreover the EU regulation on novel foods which the FSA say they have breached is open to interpretation. In the UK, it is said to apply to cloned animals and their descendants (through an infinite number of generations); in the rest of Europe, it applies only to the original clone.

With the international trade in bull semen large and difficult to control, it is likely shots from cloned animals - costing as little as 30 a time - have already made their way across the Atlantic. And, since the sale of products from the progeny of clones is not prohibited in other EU countries, and goods can move freely from one EU country to another, "cloned" beef and milk may already be on our supermarket shelves.

So - when it comes to cloning - is the genie already out of the bottle? And if it is, is that anything to be scared of?

It is all very different in the US. At Pollard Farms - a cattle ranch in Oklahoma, for example - 20 of the 400-strong herd of Black Angus Cattle are clones of some of the most productive livestock in the world.

Since the US Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of food from clones and their offspring in 2008, farm owner and neurosurgeon Dr Barry Pollard has been at the vanguard of a new type of breeding programme. "We're trying to stay on the very top of the heap of quality, genetically, with animals that will gain well and fatten well, produce well and reproduce well," he said last year.

Pollard believes cloning not only improves life for the farmer, who gets robust, disease-resistant animals, which produce higher milk yields and bigger, better steaks, but is good for the environment.

"If you don't need as much corn to feed your cattle, you might be able to cut back on the amount of fertiliser put out there on the countryside that might end up in a river. You can cut the amount of diesel that's spent raising that corn," he said."Just like they improve the genetics of corn, so they can produce more bushels per acre, we're trying to do that same type of thing by using cloning and superior genetics to produce more meat with less input."

In the UK, however, the whole concept of cloning has met with much more resistance. In 2008, a European Commission survey found 87 per cent of people in the UK (84 per cent in Europe) didn't believe enough was known about the long-term health and safety effects of eating meat from cloned animals. Fifty-five percent of people in the UK (63 per cent in Europe) said they would not want to eat meat or drink milk from cloned animals or their offspring.

It is unsurprising, then, that news that beef from the offspring of a clone had entered the food chain in the UK provoked such dismay. The story broke when an anonymous British farmer apparently told the International Herald Tribune he was selling milk from the progeny of a cloned cow. As a result, the FSA launched an investigation and discovered eight Holstein embryos - four male/four female embryos - harvested from Vandy K Integ Paradise 2 had been exported to the UK in 2007.

Two of the resulting calves - one male and one female - died within a month. Of the remaining males, two, Dundee Paratrooper and Dundee Parable, were slaughtered and their meat consumed The third, Dundee Perfect, was slaughtered on 27 July, but the FSA stepped in to prevent the meat entering the food chain.

The three remaining females have also been traced to dairy farms. On Thursday, the FSA confirmed the milk of one - Dundee Paradise - had not been sold to consumers. It is still investigating the other two.

According to scientists, there is no danger to consumer from eating the meat of the progeny of clones. The US FDA's latest report on the animals points out that "inappropriate epigenetic reprogramming" caused by the nuclear transfer process by which cloning is achieved are not replicated for the next generation, which is produced by more conventional reproductive methods.

"Anomalies present in clones do not appear to be transmitted to the next generation, and the offspring that are produced are normal and healthy," the report says. "Progeny of clones are thus not anticipated to pose any additional food safety concerns compared with other animals produced via sexual reproduction."

Dr Brendan Curran, a geneticist from the school of biological and chemical sciences at Queen Mary, University of London agrees. "This type of cloning is an extension of the process by which identical twins arise in nature," he says. "Therefore if you have a healthy cow that is producing milk, it will produce healthy milk. I would argue that once the animal has been certified by veterinary surgeons as a fit animal, I can't see how it would be in any way dangerous."

Yet, despite all this reassurance, shoppers will take some convincing."We are concerned that the meat from the offspring of a cloned cow entered the food chain without being authorised," says Mary Lawton, food policy expert, at Consumer Focus Scotland. "This appears to highlight a lack of clarity in the novel food authorisation process that can leave consumers in the dark about where food has come from."

Perhaps this is because consumers' concerns have as much to do with ethical issues - such as animal welfare - as they do with food safety. At present the cloning process is inefficient, with hundreds of miscarriages and deformities for every successful birth. Those animals who do survive often have abnormally large organs, leading to problems with blood flow, and a shorter-than-usual life span.

Peter Stevenson, from campaign group Compassion in World Farming, says cloning is "at the sharp end of the inhumane selective breeding processes that are often involved in the intensive production of meat and dairy products. Many animals suffer in the pursuit of higher yields because they are being stretched to the limits of their physical capacity."

For farmers in the UK, the lack of interest from consumers is the biggest disincentive. Post-BSE, farmers know consumer confidence is fundamental to the future of their industry, with shoppers taking an ever greater interest in the provenance of their food.

But even were the regulations to be relaxed and the general public to be won over, cloning might not take off in the UK. Even in the US, the technology is so far being used on a fairly small scale to clone very high-merit animals that can then be spread out and used in a more widespread way (as in the case of the bulls at the centre of the current controversy) and to clone animals that are on the verge of becoming extinct.

It is still very expensive. As Professor Grahame Bulfield, former director of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, where Dolly was cloned, has pointed out, a lab could cost several million pounds to set up and several hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to run, but produce only 20 to 30 animals annually, making it less than cost-effective.

"Cloning is one of these issues which is still very much to be debated," says Scott Walker, policy director at the National Farmers' Union of Scotland "Everyone can see there are potential benefits, but does it make commercial sense?

"For farmers the issue involves both costs and genetics. We wouldn't want to do anything that lessened the genetic pool out there for livestock. What you are breeding an animal for now, might not be what you need to breed an animal for in 50 to 100 years' time, so you want to maintain a wide degree of genetics."

As the Inneses wait to hear their fate, what farmers do seem to want is greater clarity and a more level playing field.To many, the fact that it is legal to buy the embryos or semen harvested from a clone, but not to use them for commercial purposes, is an anomaly that needs to be sorted out.

Coming up with a single EU-wide interpretation on the novel food regulation is also a priority, if UK farmers are not to be placed at a commercial disadvantage.

"What we've got to be looking for is very clear guidance to the industry so everyone knows what they can and cannot do, because there's been a lot of confusion out there," says Walker.

"Then the industry and wider afield needs to have a discussion of the potential or otherwise of cloned animals. Is this a technology that should be used and, if so, in what way?

"We look at a lot of things, and certainly the general application of science and technology, has benefited the world. We all take advantage of it every day in our working lives. Cloning is a new science, a new technology and we should have a debate as to where it would fit in the spectrum of technologies farmers can use."

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