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Cloning of farmed animals

Cloning is the creation of an organism that is an almost exact genetic copy of another.

The Government has been looking closely at whether there might be any food safety or animal welfare implications from food products made from cloned farm animals or their descendants.

Government’s view

The UK Government agrees with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that for cattle and pigs, there is no evidence of any difference in food safety between food products from conventionally bred animals, and from cloned animals and their descendants.

The Government considers that a ban on cloning, use of clones and food from clones (as recommended by the European Commission on 19 October 2010) would be disproportionate in terms of food safety and animal welfare. The welfare of all farmed animals, including clones and their descendants, is already protected by current welfare legislation.

We need to keep an open mind on new technologies; a point made recently in the Foresight report (on the BIS website).

Food from cloned animals and their descendants

Meat and milk from cloned animals are classed as novel foods because they are obtained from animals that have been created by breeding practices that were not traditional when the EU Novel Foods Regulation came into effect in 1997. Under the requirements of the Regulation, they must be assessed for safety before they can be legally marketed anywhere in the EU.

The farm animals most likely to be cloned are high value cattle and pigs. These are the only species for which sufficient data are available to enable food safety and animal welfare issues to be assessed.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is the body responsible for food safety. The FSA has interpreted the current EU Novel Food Regulation as applying both to food from a clone and to food from an animal with a clone in its ancestry.  The European Commission and other Member States do not consider that food from an animal descended from a clone should be classed as novel and subject to authorisation.  The FSA is considering results from a recent consultation before deciding whether to adopt the Commission’s position. More information can be found on the FSA’s website at: www.food.gov.uk

Food labelling

Responsibility for food labelling is shared by Defra and the FSA . The FSA deals with labelling in relation to food safety and Defra deals with labelling in relation to food standards and consumer choice.

In its meeting on 7 December 2010, the FSA Board agreed that, for food safety purposes, mandatory labelling of meat and milk obtained from the descendants of cloned cattle and pigs would be unnecessary and disproportionate, providing no significant food safety benefit to consumers.

Defra’s view is that mandatory labelling of meat or milk products derived from animals with a clone in their ancestry would be unenforceable and impractical. There is no traceability system that can be applied to either imported or home produced products from descendants of clones. Our view is that, as there are no food safety issues, the cost of introducing such a system (which could not in any case deal with imported food or with food derived from descendants of clones already present in the EU) cannot be justified.

Animal welfare

Cloning for purely commercial purposes is not currently covered by any regulation but the welfare of all farmed animals is regulated in the UK through a combination of EU and national legislation. Donor animals, surrogate mothers and clones themselves would be subject to the same welfare requirements as those that apply to all farmed animals.

EU developments

The European Commission published a report on animal cloning for food production on 19 October 2010 and recommended a five year ban on cloning in the EU, on the use of cloned animals and on the sale of food from clones. It also recommended that it should be made clear on health certificates whether semen and embryos imported into the EU derived from cloned animals so that industry could set up a tracing system if it wished to do so.

Amendments to the EU Novel Foods Regulation are being discussed in Brussels.  If new legislation is agreed, it could change the current EU rules on food from cloned animals and their descendants.  A Conciliation process is underway to try to resolve differences between the European Parliament and the European Council.  This process must conclude by 30 March 2011. 

Background

What is cloning

Cloning of animals is usually achieved through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The first farm animal to be cloned successfully was Dolly the sheep, created in 1996 at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh.

Advantages and disadvantages of cloning

The main potential benefit of cloning is that by reproducing copies of desirable animals, it is possible for more farmers to be able to breed from the best animals.  These could include animals that may be more resistant to disease (which may improve welfare), be more productive (which may help reduce greenhouse gasses) or produce better quality meat. Cloning also has a potential role in conserving rare breeds.

Cloning is a new and developing technology. It is an expensive process likely to be used mainly to duplicate elite animals used for breeding.

Numbers of cloned animals and their descendants in the UK

We are not aware of any commercial cloning facility operating in the UK. We are aware of 8 immediate offspring of a cloned cow which were imported as embryos into the UK from the US. Of these, a small number are still alive on UK farms as are a number of subsequent descendants. It is not possible to be precise about the number of descendants of clones either in the UK or elsewhere because there is no requirement to identify whether semen or embryos are derived from clones or from animals with clones in their ancestry.

Further information

The National Standing Committee on Farm Animal Genetic Resources provided advice on cloning to Government on 13 September 2010.

Page published: 9 March 2011