Meat and milk from cloned animals could soon become available in the EU, depending on the outcome of a European Food Safety Authority scientific review.
EFSA reported yesterday that the European Commission had asked it for advice on the implications of animal cloning on food safety, animal health and welfare and the environment.
Cloning could provide processors with a better quality of meat and other products, such as dairy. Cloning offers the possibility of creating strains of animals with increased disease resistance and other qualities.
However consumer resistance is bound to pose a problem, as happed in the case of attempts to introduce genetically-modified foods in the bloc.
The Commission request asks for advice on food safety, animal health, animal welfare and environment implication of "live cloned animals, obtained through somatic cell nucleus transfer (SCNT) technique, their offspring and of the products obtained from those animals."
EFSA is the scientific risk assessor for novel foods proposed for introduction in the EU's food chain. The Commission made the request of opinions both from EFSA and the European Group of Ethics.
Animal cloning issues cut across different EFSA scientific panels, the agency said.
At present in Europe cloning is not a commercial practice and there is no specific regulation on the authorisation of food products from cloned animals for human consumption in the EU.
EFSA's opinion will therefore help inform any future EU measures for cloned animals and their products.
"EFSA has already begun considering how best to address this issue in anticipation of the possibility of such a request, and will now discuss with the Commission the request received," the agency stated. "A final mandate will be agreed with the Commission, taking into account issues such as the proposed timetable for working on such a complex opinion."
EFSA plans to produce a report within six months.
The issue reared its head in the EU earlier this year after the UK's Food Standards Agency revealed in January that the calf of a cloned cow was being raised on a UK farm.
After food safety officials from the 27 member states held urgent talks on the matter, a decision was reached that milk and meat from cloned animals and their offspring should be considered in the same way as any other novel food, such as genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
This decision put the ball in EFSA's court.
In the US, debate surrounding the issue gathered momentum in recent months, after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it planned to approve cloning for food production later this year.
The US regulator has issued a consultation proposing to allow the product into the food chain without the need for labelling.
An independent study in the US indicates that 60 per cent of Americans would not knowingly eat cloned meat. A 2002 EU survey found that Europeans were generally against any new foods that had been produced through new scientific advances - such as GMOs.
Cloning uses DNA technology to produce multiple, exact copies of a single gene or other segment of DNA. It refers to the creation a new mutlicellular organism, genetically identical to another.
Reproductive cloning is a technology used to generate an animal that has the same nuclear DNA as another currently or previously existing animal, according to Wikipedia.
Cloning came to the forefront in 1996 when Dolly, a ewe, became the first mammal to have been successfully cloned from an adult cell.
She was cloned at the Roslin Institute in the UK and died after six years.