Press Coverage Story
European Agency: Cloned Animals 'Unlikely' to Pose Risks
By Rick Weiss, Washington Post
January 11, 2008
European Agency: Cloned Animals 'Unlikely' to Pose Risks
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008; 7:32 AM
The European Food Safety Authority this morning said it has concluded that meat and milk from healthy cloned cattle and pigs is "very unlikely" to pose risks to consumers, opening the door to possible European sales of those controversial foods in the future.
The highly anticipated draft scientific opinion of the European agency comes just days before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is due to release its final report on the same topic, which is expected to come to virtually the same conclusion. Some backers of the fledgling agricultural cloning industry have said they hoped that a positive report from Europe might help ease the process of gaining acceptance by American consumers.
It remains unclear, however, whether the European Union will ultimately approve sale of cloned products, and if so under what conditions.
Unlike the case in the United States, such decisions in Europe are required by law to incorporate social and ethical considerations. And the European public broadly supports the so-called precautionary principle, which calls for society to err on the side of caution when risks are uncertain.
Moreover, the European agency, which provides scientific advice to the European Commission, notes in its report that many cloned farm animals have health problems, including life-threatening physiological abnormalities. In Europe, where animal welfare is a much higher profile issue than it is in the United States, that reality could also become a stumbling block.
The 47-page report concludes, however, that cloned animals with health problems would be screened out by traditional food inspection methods. And echoing earlier assertions by the FDA, it finds that milk and meat from healthy clones are as nutritious and safe to eat as milk and meat from ordinary animals.
"Based on current knowledge there is no expectation that clones or their progeny would introduce any new food safety risks compared with conventionally bred animals," the report says.
It also finds that clones have no unique health problems, only a higher rate of problems seen in conventional animals. That offers hope that with technical advances those issues will gradually disappear, the report says.
The report also concludes that sexually produced offspring of clones -- which are far more likely to enter the food supply than clones themselves, since clones are too valuable to slaughter -- are completely normal by every measure.
Scientists at a handful of companies around the world, including at least two in the United States, want to clone prize-winning beef cattle, dairy cows, pigs and other animals as a way to bring more consistently high-quality products to market. But consumer reaction has been less than enthusiastic.
Some fear that hidden health risks may exist in food from clones, while others are offended by the high death rates seen in newborn clones and the suffering endured by many of their surrogate mothers, which can have trouble giving birth to their often oversized offspring.
Despite that wariness, and despite European agriculture's general disinterest in adopting the technology, the EU has been under international pressure to rule on the products' safety -- in part so other countries can export their meat and milk products there without worrying about challenges to that trade.
The issue is also of interest to Europe because semen from American cattle -- and perhaps, soon, from high-end cattle clones -- is widely used by European farmers.
New Zealand and Australia have already released positive reports on the safety of food from clones and their progeny, and Canada and Argentina are expected to follow soon.
The "draft risk assessment" released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2006 found no unique health risks from meat or milk from clones or their offspring. The agency has been reworking that analysis, taking into account new science and the more than 30,500 public comments it received. It is expected to release its final report any day.
Last February, noting progress being made by the FDA, the European Commission asked the European Food Safety Authority to provide a "scientific opinion" on the safety of food products from clones, as well as an assessment of cloning's effects on animal health and welfare and on the environment.
The report released today is a first draft of that opinion and will be open for public comment for 60 days before being put into final form.
In addition to addressing the safety of milk and meat from clones, the report asserts that the introduction of cloned animals into European agriculture will not have a negative effect on the environment.
"There is no expectation that clones or their progeny would pose any new or additional environmental risks compared to conventionally bred animals," it concludes. "Cloning does not involve changes in DNA sequences and thus no new genes would be introduced into the environment."
The agency also recommends further health and safety studies, especially on older clones, very few of which have been carefully studied, it says.
Separately, a different European advisory group is preparing a report on the ethical implications of bringing the science of cloning into European agriculture.
Because European law demands attention to social and ethical consequences of regulations, the EU could ultimately decide to restrict animal cloning in trade and agriculture despite the positive scientific report, said Joseph Mendelson, legal director at the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, which has petitioned FDA to delay approving cloned food.
"Human health is only part of the equation in Europe," Mendelson said. "And even if Europe gives it a green light, we believe they will require labels."
The FDA has previously said it is unlikely to require that cloned food be labeled as such if no novel risks are identified.