By Philip Bethge
Cattle cloning has long been standard practice in the United States. Now EU agriculture ministers have decided that cloned meat and milk should be allowed onto the European market. Not everyone is pleased.
Anyone who considers creation sacred should make sure they never talk to a cattle breeder. In-vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and embryo transfer are the terms of their trade. And now another word from the lexicon of reproductive medicine has joined the breeder’s jargon: cloning.
The European Union’s agricultural ministers decided on Monday of last week that in the future, the meat and milk of the offspring of cloned animals should be allowed on the European market. The European Parliament still needs to approve the proposal. However environmental and animal protection organizations responded immediately to the news and condemned the decision. They consider cloning to be unethical and cruel, and warn that the risks of cloned meat for human health have not been adequately researched.
The ministers’ decision was long overdue. In the US and South America, cloning has long been standard practice among breeders. German experts like Heiner Niemann from the Institute for Animal Breeding at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute also have high expectations of the technique. “In the future, cloning will be one of the standard cattle-breeding techniques,” says Niemann.
The technology is already widely used in the US. Companies like ViaGen, Cyagra or Trans Ova Genetics offer cattle clones for between $10,000 and $20,000. The benefits are obvious: Multiple copies can be made of a bull with particularly desirable characteristics. And multiple “superbulls” naturally have more offspring than just one — meaning more premium meat for the breeder.
“With elite animals, cloning can quickly pay for itself,” says Mark Walton of ViaGen. Karen Batra from the Biotechnology Industry Organization estimates there are already about 600 cloned super cattle in the US. The meat of their offspring is already on sale in supermarkets, she says, explaining that it doesn’t need to be specially labeled. “For breeders, cloning is just another reproductive technique, much like in-vitro fertilization,” says Batra.
But critics see significant differences. Cloning is said to produce deformed animals with short life expectancies. The cloned sheep Dolly is known to have met a painful end. But genetics expert Heiner Niemann claims that “major progress” has been made since then. Far fewer embryos die and “defects” are much more seldom.
The meat of the cloned animal itself doesn’t end up in supermarkets, however: Both the US and Europe prohibit its sale. What ends up in the store freezers are the steaks from the clone’s offspring. Its quality is indisputable — and these animals are not even clones. Both the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last year that the milk and meat of the offspring of cloned animals pose no health risks.
So is it only a matter of time before “cloned” meat is to be found on European supermarket shelves too? After all, it can’t be distinguished from normal steaks. The European Parliament needs to decide soon, before American products start landing on the European market unnoticed.
According to an EFSA report, the technology “is on the verge of widespread commercial use.” The institution’s experts expect the technique will be used around the world “before 2010.”