Cloned animal meat 'already in UK's food chain'

SUPERMARKET shelves could have already been flooded with imported meat from cloned animals because of loopholes in food-labelling regulations, agricultural experts have revealed.

• Holstein cattle gather at Newmeadow Farm – it is believed 96 cows were sired by the bulls at the centre of the row. Pictures: David Moir

The news came as a Scottish farmer who sold meat from the offspring of a cloned animal insisted he had complied with the proper guidelines.

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The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has launched an inquiry into revelations that beef from two offspring of a cloned cow entered the food chain.

Newmeadow Farm, near Nairn, run by father and son Calum and Steven Innes, is under investigation after a bull, called Dundee Paratrooper, was slaughtered in 2009 and its meat sold.

A second bull – Dundee Perfect – from the same farm was to be sold for meat as well until the FSA stepped in last month.

Last night the FSA revealed another bull, Parable, which was slaughtered in May this year, has also entered the food chain. The father and son insist they have done nothing wrong and had followed all food and animal traceability regulations.

They have been backed by farming leaders who want a tightening of rules. However, they point to the "ridiculous" situation where meat from abroad can get into the UK food chain as there is no requirement for imported meat entering the country to identify it as coming from a cloned animal.

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A farming industry insider said: "Cloned animals are already commonplace elsewhere. They were developed in the US. Meat and milk from cloned animals already appear in the shops there and undoubtedly they are getting into the food chain here.

"We are not allowed to grow GM here but we are allowed to feed certain GM products here. We bring in chicken, pork and beef from elsewhere that are fed on GM crops and they will be in the food chain."

Jim McLaren, president of NFU Scotland, said: "There is scope for a further tightening of the rules and this incident demonstrates that. It should require that the animal passports state that it has come from a cloned animal somewhere further back in the line. That is the gap that we currently have."

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He added: "Of course we probably still have cloned products coming in.

This is the ridiculous nature of our rules in Europe. We impose very strict regulations on what farmers can do in the UK and in Europe – with some justification in many cases – but we allow the free importation of products from other countries.

"Cloning is widespread elsewhere in the world. If you go to the US or Canada you will almost certainly be consuming meat and dairy products from cloned animals at every turn. The fact that it is not something you do in the UK or Europe without the food being alternatively labelled is the key thing here."

The FSA admitted it did not know how many embryos from cloned animals have been imported into Britain.

But FSA chief executive Tim Smith insisted there were no health risks associated with eating meat or drinking milk from the descendants of cloned cows.

Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of microbiology at the University of Aberdeen, said meat and milk from cloned cows posed no health risks.

He said: "It is perfectly safe. They are just the same as their parents from the genetic point of view so there's no problem there."

The FSA says the Innes family should have complied with regulations governing the sale of the "novel" meat – foods produced by technologies not previously used for food. They could face prosecution and a fine of up to 5,000.

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The two bulls they bought privately were used to sire 96 cows. They are between one to three years old and have yet to produce milk, but the FSA says any milk will be stopped from being sold while it investigates possible breaches in the regulatory process.

Yesterday Steven Innes confirmed he had bought the two bulls in February 2008. In a statement read at the farm he added: "We investigated whether this was legal at the time and understood that there was no issue.

"We acted in good faith throughout and have been fully compliant with the relevant authorities' wishes and shall continue to be fully co-operative in order to resolve the situation as soon as possible."

However, the FSA said it was up to farmers to comply with the law and said it has no intention of tightening the rules. It says in order to produce food products from clones or their offspring, a licence under Novel Food Regulations must be applied for and authorisation granted at a European level. It said it had neither made any authorisations nor been asked to do so.

FSA head Charles Milne said: "Any person producing food has a responsibility to comply with regulations and we would encourage all producers to comply with the law. But we have put the information in the public domain, there is little more we can do in terms of promoting it."

Conservative Euro MP for Scotland Struan Stevenson said the EU rules around the import of meat and dairy products from clones and their offspring are "confused and inadequate".

He said such imported products should be clearly labelled: 'This may have come from a cloned animal'.

He added: "That way EU consumers would be able to make an informed choice on what to buy."

Science versus morality – the great clone debate

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Artificial cloning is a process that creates an organism that is an exact copy of another – an identical twin.

German biologist Hans Driesch was the first to create twins, in 1891. He took a two-cell sea urchin embryo, shook it apart, and each cell developed into a complete individual.

Before that it had been believed that if the cells from a two-cell embryo were separated, each could create only half a creature. A few decades later German embryologist Hans Spemann pioneered a cloning method called nuclear transfer, by experimenting with salamander eggs.

Nuclear transfer formed the basis of the technique used to create Dolly the Sheep, right, a century later, at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh.

A cell from an adult ewe was implanted into an emptied egg and Dolly was born on 5 July 1996. She was the world's first cloned mammal, and was named after singer Dolly Parton.

She developed breathing problems in 2003 and it turned out she had cancer. She was put down.

Since then a similar technique has been used to copy endangered species, from wildcats in New Orleans, to a mouflon – a threatened type of sheep – in Italy. It has also been used, mainly in America, to copy elite animals, including horses and farm animals such as cattle and pigs to try to create beasts with improved yields.

ViaGen, a company based in Austin, Texas, clones cattle, horses and pigs. Even a racing camel, Injaz, has been cloned in Dubai.

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Pets have also been cloned, such as a cat called Nicky, produced by a California company in 2004 from the DNA of a 17-year-old animal that had died the year before. Then came Afghan hound Snuppy, left, in April 2005. The dog was cloned by a team in South Korea led by Woo Suk Hwang, then at Seoul National University.

There has been speculation that cloning could be used to help bring back extinct species such as the mammoth.

In the decade after Dolly the most hotly anticipated use of cloning was to create embryos using the DNA of people with illnesses. However, this technique, known as therapeutic cloning, began to be eclipsed in 2006 when Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University, Japan, came up with an alternative way of creating human embryonic stem cells.

Yamanaka showed that it is possible to convert adult cells into embryo-like induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells without resorting to cloning.

This opens up the possibility that one day it may be possible to use cells from a patient's skin to form other cells to treat conditions, such as muscle cells to repair damage following a heart attack. Unlike therapeutic cloning, Yamanaka's technique does not need human eggs, which are in short supply.

Nor does it create and destroy cloned human embryos, a practice some people find morally objectionable. Some scientists claim that work on Dolly and other animals has prepared the ground for cloning human beings.

However, according to Professor Ian Wilmut, who led the team that created Dolly, writing in the latest edition of New Scientist, said cloning animals so far has shown that the possibility for harm far outweighs any currently conceivable benefits.

To make Dolly, his team at the Roslin Institute started with 277 reprogrammed eggs.

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Only 29 made it to the stage where they could be implanted into 13 surrogate mothers. Of those sheep, only one became pregnant, carrying Dolly.

To repeat the Dolly experience in humans, he said, would mean obtaining around 300 human eggs, which are already in short supply, and persuading 29 women to agree to having an embryo implanted.

Of those, 28 would risk the hurt and emotional turmoil of failed pregnancies, miscarriages and deformed fetuses so that one embryo would "take" to produce a child.

"It adds up to an intolerable exercise in human misery and suffering," said Prof Wilmut. There are also concerns regarding the psychological and social impacts on any cloned child, which have been explored by the psychiatrist Stephen Levick, left.

The pressures on a cloned child could be extreme – such as if they have been created to undo the loss of a dead child.

Prof Wilmut said for these reasons he opposes human cloning, which he said would be "utterly irresponsible".

Agricultural view - 'Choice must lie with shoppers'

This is very much an issue of consumer choice rather than food safety. Produce from cloned animals is being consumed around the world so the issue is to do with labelling to make sure people know what they are buying.

There is no demand from consumers in the UK and Scotland for produce from cloned animals so there would seem to be no reason why farmers here would want to set off down that route.

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National Farmers' Union Scotland's position is that policy should always be driven by science and understanding, rather than emotion. We should allow the scientists to explore these production methods, but we must always allow consumers to ultimately decide what they would like to buy.

In this case, the farmer appears to have received incomplete advice on the issue, and whilst rearing and keeping the animals is completely legal, a licence from the Food Standards Agency to sell the produce into the food chain was not obtained. We need to look at further tightening of already very strict and robust rules to make sure any cloned animals are identified on their passports so that producers can apply to the FSA for approval to use them.

• Jim McLaren, president of NFU Scotland

Welfare view - 'Animals do have feelings'

we need to remember that a cloned animal is not a monster but a real, sentient animal, and so is its surrogate mother. We have the same responsibility to secure their welfare as we do to every other animal bred for food.

Many cloned embryos die before birth or shortly afterwards from conditions including cardiovascular failure, respiratory problems, organ failure or other abnormalities. In 2008, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that the mortality rate of clones was higher than in sexually produced animals.

Add to that the increased pregnancy failure rate in cattle and pigs, the increased number of difficult births, especially in cattle, due to the size of the cloned offspring, and the welfare concerns become overwhelming.

The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies said in 2008 that it did not see a case to justify the production of food from clones because of the suffering and health problems.

No-one wants to hold back genuine progress, but most of us would prefer animals to be seen as individuals with feelings, behaviours and welfare needs. They are not simply units of production.

• Libby Anderson, a director at Advocates for Animals