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Is cloned food legal? Europe must decide, and fast

By Jess Halliday , 09-Aug-2010
Last updated on 09-Aug-2010 at 14:37 GMT2010-08-09T14:37:37Z

Big oops. Meat and milk from the offspring of cloned animals has entered the UK food chain. Cue scary headlines and scared consumers. But the leviathan of EU-lawmaking means no-one actually knows if it’s legal or not. And that’s an even bigger oops.

No-one can really blame UK consumers if they are sniffing their milk and beef sandwiches suspiciously this summer.

After all, despite reassurances from health experts that produce from the offspring of clones animals is safe, and a positive food safety opinion from EFSA, the current hoo-ha is happening in a country where, in 1990, a small child was fed a burger on live TV just so her agriculture minister father could show the nation how sure he was she wouldn’t get BSE from it.

Safety is crucial, but so is the horned question of whether or not clones or their offspring can legally enter the food chain. And right now it’s about as clear as cow pat – not least for the Food Standards Agency, which has been rounded on by legal beagles after categorically stating they cannot.

A new kind of buy-one-get-one-free

The trouble with cloning is that when the original novel foods regulation was worked out in 1997, few people thought the marketing tactic of ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ could, one day, extend to whole animals. It applies to “foods and food ingredients consisting of or isolated from plants and food ingredients isolated from animals, except for foods and food ingredients obtained by traditional propagating or breeding practices and having a history of safe food use”.

This might imply cloned foods are included, but whether or not that implication is sufficient is confusing even for people who are up close and personal with bovine breeding habits. (Your writer is not, and has no immediate plans to extend her professional experience in that direction).

If this does implicitly include produce from clones’ offspring, then the FSA should have been consulted. It was not, so it seems clones slipped through on its watch – another oops for the agency that’s just been carved up by the Conservative coalition government.

If it doesn’t? Well, there are no rules so it’s legal by default. Right?

The European Commission has already recognised the need for clarity. Biotechnology is not the same game as it was in 1997. Aside from animal cloning becoming a very real proposition, huge strides have been made in genetic modification of crops – and much very tiny progress with nanoparticles.

This, among other reasons, is why novel foods is undergoing a revamp. Trouble is, Brussels law-making takes years, and the Council and the Parliament are currently on different sides of the cattle grid.

MEPs reject the idea that produce from clones or their offspring should be bundled under novel foods, arguing that the ethical aspects, as well as lack of long-term safety info, mean they merit their own special law.

The Council, on the other hand, wants cloning herded into the existing novel foods structure for now, subject to a review a year or so down the line.

Last week’s events mean the game of ping-pong being played back and forth between the Brussels institutions cannot continue. New technology is outpacing the law-making mechanisms, and the two sides need to get together to take swift, decisive interim action.

The clones – or at least the farmers raising them – will not wait.

To let the matter drift is to risk trampling consumer confidence in the food chain – confidence that the FSA and other food safety bodies across Europe have worked hard to rebuild over the last decade.

Let’s not forget that Europe’s admirable food safety mechanisms were put in place in the wake of BSE and other catastrophic food scares. Neither they, nor industry, nor consumers, can afford to let another crisis bring them into disrepute because no-one could decide where the legal boundaries lie.

Jess Halliday is senior editor of FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States.

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