The Meat Of Cloned Animals Could Be In The Food Chain Soon
It is estimated that by the year 2010 Americans and Europeans will be eating the meat of cloned cows and drinking their milk. By the end of this year, US regulators will decide whether to allow cloned animals from entering the food chain and the EU is studying the issue at this moment. Experts say the decision is not going to be without consequences. In the EU, the public is largely ignorant of what is going on. Unlike in the US, where consumers are ganging up against it.
Bio technology is huge in terms of governments' international trading balance. That is just about the only safe conjecture to make at this point in time, when estimating what the impact of artificially created meat will be in terms of competition. At the moment other issues are more important and have compelled the US and Europeans to collaborate. The technicalities however are more or less out of the way and the process is in the regulatory stage. Both the US and EU aim to meet similar objectives -- absolute safety- but their regulatory approaches differ.
Tassos Haniotis, expert and a member of the European Commission in Brussels (Belgium), says in an article that 'the US focuses on regulating the end product, the EU has the tendency to regulate the whole production process. At some point it will be important for these regulatory processes to find some equilibrium that will satisfy consumers and regulators.'
The EU is known to be highly regulatory. Non labeling of food items is hardly going to be conceivable. Nevertheless, the Europeans decided earlier in the year that there won't be any special measures to cover food products from cloned animals in the EU. But to make sure they were doing the right thing, they deferred the issue to the EU watchdog, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA is to 'advise on food safety, animal health, animal welfare and environmental implications of cloned animals... their offspring, and of products obtained from these animals".
It was in Europe that the first momentous clonings have taken place. Most recently, it's been the birth of the first calf of a cloned cow. That's put pressure on the EU legislators to get up to speed with their legislation pertaining cloned meat entering the food stream. The calf, Dundee Paradise, was recently born in the UK. Experts the world over agree that the industry has reached a critical stage and that by 2010 it will be ready to immerse the market with cloned food products.
Dairyreporter.com says 'Urgent talks have taken place at the European Commission's Novel Foods Working Group, after Europe was hauled into the cloned food debate because of news that the offspring of a cloned cow had been born on a UK farm.' Weighing food risk factors on the basis of scientific evaluation is no longer done in a vacuum, but in a real, concrete environment. The EFSA on its website says it is 'Taking into account the complexity of the issue and the broad range of expertise needed to address this question'. The organization charged its Scientific Committee to address this request. A working group of experts in the field is currently preparing a draft opinion and it outlines on the website what additional information from the outside world is required.
What is going to be very important in both the US and the EU is of course where regulation leaves off and why. This might be the litmus test between governments that strike up deals with transnational entities whose fate is dependent on their solidarity to citizens. There have been more battles between governments and scientists, but this field is among the most precarious.
There are distinct differences in the perception of risk between US and EU consumers and citizens. The EU is religious when it comes to labeling. As a result of the BSE crisis, Europeans lost a lot more of their trust in governments' and scientists' judgement on what you can and can't put in the food chain. Europeans, more than Americans, display a greater amount of distrust over new developments in the early stages of technological applications. Not only in terms of food safety, but also in terms of environmental impacts. These concerns reached almost hysterical levels in the aftermath of the first BSE crisis. There was an outcry over the effects of use of antibiotics in animal feed, and the use of hormones as growth promotors in animals. A new approach to food safety regulation was introduced in the EU as a result. The food safety regulatory system was completely overhauled both in the area of scientific evaluation and in that of consumer protection.
The dangers on a technological level might not be all eliminated by far. Dolly, the very first cloned sheep born in the United Kingdom in 1996 was not perfect at all. The poor thing was euthanized at the age of 6. Sheep typically live to 11 or 12 years. Dolly was diagnosed with arthritis, a condition usually found in older sheep. It is not clear whether the cloning process led to the arthritis, but research in 1999 suggested that Dolly might be susceptible to premature ageing -- a possibility raised after a study of her genetics. One of the scientist who was a member to the team that created Dolly, Professor Ian Wilmut, feels that it is a shame that his country didn't profit from this technology.
Professor Wilmut told BBC News: "I think that it is very difficult for a small country like this to develop fully something which does have great international value, because once that's recognised the science will move elsewhere. And in a sense, that's a compliment to the science: the technology was very important and is now being exploited commercially in Japan and the United States, all sorts of different countries."
Wilmut's right. The centre of activity has moved to Texas where a combination of academic and commercial laboratories are providing a service for a growing number of clients. Animals are already being cloned commercially on a small scale. ViaGen, a commercial cloning company based in Austin, Texas, made world headlines reporting it had sold a cloned kitten, Little Nicky, to a member of the public. It also said it produces copies of individual animals of very high value - whether emotional or commercial. ViaGen charges $15,000 to clone a bull and $3,000 for a pig. However, whether the activity is allowed to continue remains to be seen. At the end of the year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will deliver its final decision on the issue. The BBC says that if the ruling, as expected, allows animal products from clones and their offspring to enter the human food chain then agricultural cloning is set to take off.
The food chain's going to be affected. Consumers in the EU are hardly throwing up a fight. The novelty and scientific nature of the issues involved are mostly to blame. It is difficult to make out why cloning would be dangerous, but for that matter, it is equally difficult to see what the advantages would be. Bio engineering experts quoted by the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad assert a view that is oft quoted by those in favor of cloning, pointing out that it's as ridiculous to demand a label on meat than it is to indicate whether it was produced by means of artificial insemination. Others are saying that there is going to be no noticeable difference between the cloned products and the real thing and that it is for this reason that authorities don't want to spend extra funds on this. ViaGen, which cloned as many as 67 animals in 2006 according to its president Mark Walton, developed AnguSure, a genetic test for Angus beef. Walton estimates, though, that ViaGen won't start making a profit for three more years. The company is working on lowering the cost of cloning, making it affordable to cow and pig farmers, while gearing up for the demand that may follow. He expects to clone and up to 800 animals in 2008.
Cloning technology might revolutionize food production around the world. Or it might follow the example of nuclear energy, which once was a symbol of socioeconomic progress but which now has become one of the most unpopular innovations in history. Cloning is a way more precarious issue because it affects health way more directly. Walton, the ViaGen president pointed out his firm's main challenge in convincing farmers and the public at large is priority number one if he wants to make some profit. He cites unanswered questions thrown up by the novelty of the business as none all too different from doing business itself when saying "That's the nature of a new business. There are far more questions than answers". It is a scary comment especially because it is coming from someone who's presumably faced with the responsibility to provide answers before jumping into the deep end. Consumers have a few more months to blow the whistle.
How global trading will ultimately be affected remains to be seen. Thomas Bernauer, who wrote Genes, Trade, and Regulation : The Seeds of Conflict in Food Biotechnology, says that the global trading system has long been a source of friction, particularly between the United States and the European Union. But it's not immediately clear whether cloning will facilitate countries with a competitive advantage. Bernauer reviews cooperative and unilateral policy tools, pinpointing why the tools used thus far have been and will continue to be ineffective and that there's no end in sight for the rivalry between the EU and the US.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer in Amsterdam. She has been a foreign correspondent in the Middle East in the 1990s and now runs www.contentClix.com, a writing agency. She is available for freelance writing assignments.