International Herald Tribune (link no longer available)
By Stephen Castle
BRUSSELS: The European Food Safety Authority pulled back Thursday from giving milk and meat from cloned animals a clean bill of health, making it less likely that such products could reach store shelves in Europe anytime soon.
The final report from the authority, an independent advisory body, was less reassuring about safety than a draft in January. It comes after an earlier, negative assessment from a European ethics committee. The European Commission, which must decide whether to approve such products, will take both reports into account.
The findings also contrast with those of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which concluded this year that such products were safe – although a voluntary moratorium on marketing them remains in place.
Europeans seem likely to take an even more cautious approach similar to that followed with genetically modified crops – which has led to years of trade friction with the United States. Surveys show resistance in Europe to biotechnology remains high, especially when it comes to food.
While cloning animals is still a young and inefficient technology, scientists expect it to improve greatly in the coming years. In theory, the procedure can produce meatier cows or pigs that are better able to resist diseases.
But in its statement Thursday, the authority said that “uncertainties in the risk assessment arise due to the limited number of studies available, the small sample sizes investigated and, in general, the absence of a uniform approach that would allow all the issues relevant to this opinion to be more satisfactorily addressed.”
Some of those same points were mentioned in the draft report, but they were given much less weight.
Karen Talbot, a spokeswoman for the authority, acknowledged that there was a change of emphasis in the new findings, which followed months of consultations with industry bodies, trade and farming associations, consumer groups and nongovernmental organizations. “The conclusions are not fundamentally different,” she said, “but, after the consultation, they have acknowledged more clearly what they do know and what they don’t know.”
Vittorio Silano, chairman of the authority’s scientific committee, said that for cattle and pigs, food safety concerns are “unlikely.” But, he added, “the evidence base, while growing and showing consistent findings, is still small.”
The opinion Thursday is one of three pieces of advice that will be considered by the commission, which would have to give authorization for food from cloned animals to be marketed within the 27-nation European Union.
One of the others emerged in January in a report by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies. It said that there were “doubts as to whether cloning animals for food supply is ethically justified.” It added that it did “not see convincing arguments to justify the production of food from clones and their offspring.”
The food safety authority’s report Thursday also noted health and animal welfare problems associated with cloning. In practice, the cloning process produces a relatively high proportion of deformed animals which cannot survive, although such rates are likely to decline as the technology improves.
The third element to be considered by the commission, is a survey of opinion across the EU, which is expected to be available in the autumn.
“We are gathering the pieces of the puzzle then we will consult with the member states, stakeholders, and the European Parliament,” said Nina Papadoulaki, a European Commission spokeswoman on health issues.
During its consultation process, which began after the draft report was released, the food safety authority said that it received 285 submissions from 64 interested parties, including individuals, organizations and national risk-assessment bodies.
In a statement issued after a Feb. 7 meeting of the authority and interested parties, the panel noted that the main issue “was the strength of the evidence base on which to reach conclusions.”
“A related point made by a number of participants was the need for ongoing research into cloning,” it added.
In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats were as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals. It asked the cloning industry to adhere to a voluntary moratorium on putting cloned products into the food chain to prepare for a smooth transition.
The European Commission said that the latest opinion pointed to unresolved issues. “The very preliminary reaction to this report is that it gives rise to increased concerns on aspects of animal of animal health and welfare,” it said. “Due to the absence of data there are also some food safety open questions.”
Eurogroup for Animals, an animal welfare group, called for the commission to ban the cloning of animals for food. “The science is now there. The evidence is clear: there are problems with it,” said Sonja Van Tichelen, the organization’s director.
“The EU is now obliged to follow its own rules. Under the general farm directive a breeding technique that causes suffering should not be allowed.”