Would you eat the meat of cloned animals? You might have already done it. Cloning is legal but not done in the EU itself, yet some of our meat comes from outside the EU. According to the European Parliament (EP), this food should be labelled in the future. While all EU bodies agree on wanting to ban cloning itself, the import of cloned products and labelling of them is the main focus of the debate on a new law.
By: Michael Jochimsen & Maria Karnaukhova
„Some of the member states have regulations on cloning but most of them have nothing“, says Renate Sommer. As a member of the Group of the European People’s Party (EPP), she was rapporteur in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety in the EP. Her committee made several amendments to a proposal by the European Commission (EC), which were adopted on September 8th.
This goes far beyond the proposal by the EC, made in 2013, that only wanted to ban cloning in the EU and the import of food from clones themselves.
“Cloning exists all over the world, so there are more and more countries exporting to us,“ – says Renate Sommer. She refers mainly to Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the US, where cloning is happening right now. According to Eurostat, these ten countries exported roughly 670 million kilograms of meat into the EU last year – about 1.3 kilogram per EU citizen.
At least legally, none of this meat comes straight from cloned animals. It would need approval – that nobody requested. But most of the clones are used for breeding, not slaughtering. For example a good bull with favourable traits is cloned to produce even more offspring.
In 2009, there were around 6000 clones of farm animals worldwide, according to the NGO Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). “No current figures exist, but we believe the number has increased”, says Olga Kikou, the representative of CIWF in Brussels. These 6000 and more animals probably have produced tens of thousands of offspring until today.
The only acceptable purpose for cloning is research – both the EP and the EC don`t want to ban it as they believe in technical progress.
Cloning is deemed very inefficient: according to the think tank ICF International, the success rate is less than 10 percent in bovine animals like beef and between 5 and 17 percent in pigs – most cloned animals are stillborn.
Animal welfare was one of the main arguments from both the EC and EP to ban the technique. “Those who stay alive suffer often from deformation, problems with their immune systems and die painfully during their first weeks“, says Renate Sommer. For her, this is why the law should also ban the import of the cloned animals’ offspring and their products.
“If we allow the import of reproductive material or meat and milk of cloned animals, we support this pain, this torture in third countries – this is absolutely against European values“, says Sommer.
Olga Kikou agrees: “If we ban clones just in the EU, it means that cloning will continue somewhere else in the world and we will end up importing descendants of clones.“
Even industry lobbyists are concerned about animal welfare: “As long as the welfare problems are not solved, we are not interested”, says Jan Venneman, Director of the European Association of Farm Animal Breeding and Reproduction Organisations.
Venneman’s main complaint is about the import of reproductive material of cloned animals, which the EP wants to ban. “There are cloned bulls in the US, and if we cannot import their semen anymore, this might have a negative effect on the level of genetic progress in the EU“.
However, cloning threatens the genetic diversity, states the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). During the past 15 years, 190 breeds have disappeared. Cloning can reduce the number of animals used in breeding programmes and then contribute to the further loss of genetic diversity.
At least, the welfare of the customer isn’t in danger: EFSA and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have both concluded that meat and milk from cloned animals are safe.
The EU citizens still don’t want to eat cloned meat. In a 2008 survey by Eurobarometer, 61 percent of the EU citizens said that cloning was “morally wrong”.
If the EP gets their will, imported animals would need an import certificate proving that they are not clones or descendants of clones, six months after the regulation would come into force.
However, some see this as impractical – like Ulrike Müller from the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). She was one of the 120 members of EP who rejected the resolution, against the 529 members in favour.
Müller is supporting the EC’s proposal. The amendments by the EP are “exaggerated and create new problems,” – says her assistant Benjamin Franke.
“There is no test to determine if an animal has cloned ancestors, hence a traceability system cannot reliably label descendants of animal clones. It will cause additional administrative burden especially for the small companies in the food chain, without actually promoting animal welfare protection.”
Franke supposes that it could cause problems with trade partners: currently, no third country identifies or tracks the descendants of clones and it would take a while to set up a labelling system.
The last stage
The process has now entered potentially its last stage: the European Council has three months to decide on their common position before negotiations with the EP begin – it hasn’t started this yet because they are waiting for the EC’s assessment of the consequences of labelling, according to a source from the Danish permanent representation. The EP’s main concern is the fact that the Council never has a real common position and always tends to serve Member States` interests.
According to Venneman, his lobby group will also try to influence the Council: “For sure we will try to convince the member states that there is nothing wrong with semen and embryos from cloned animals. The position of the Parliament could hamper the breeding and reproduction sector in Europe sooner or later”.
If the lobbyists succeed as well as some critical member states like the UK, there could be a market of unlabelled food and consumer unawareness of what they are eating. Christel Schaldemose realizes that the EP might not get all their amendments to pass, but sees a compromise: “Let’s make a clear ban for one, two or three generations of clones. Then we could revise after ten years.”