Consumers in the UK believe risk analysis on animal cloning and products from cloned animals and their offspring entering the food chain should be as thorough as drug research, according to a survey published today by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
In January the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued its draft opinion, that meat and dairy products from cloned animals are probably safe for human consumption. "Based on current knowledge, there is no expectation that clones or their progeny would introduce any new food safety risks compared with conventionally bred animals," the preliminary report said. Comments on the draft were accepted until the end of February, but the final version has yet to be published.
The FSA conducted a survey involving four sets of two workshops, held in different parts of the UK. It said the survey was in advance of any food company asking for permission to market food produced using cloned animals, and will serve as a barometer for the checks and balances that would need to be in place for consumers to have confidence in such products.
A spokesperson for the FSA said that the agency's view is that it would be responsible for assessment of food products from cloned animals and their offspring prior to market entry under novel foods regulation. It is working with the European authorities on how they expect the issue to be approached.
The findings of the FSA's survey indicate a big gap between methods used by regulatory authorities to assess food safety, said the agency, and what the public perceives is necessary.
The EFSA assessment was commissioned by the European Commission in February 2007, and the risk assessor looked into existing data on the safety of cloned animals. It warned, however, that the data available were 'limited'. Most of the studies conducted to date have been of small sample size and there is little information on animals remaining alive for considerable periods of time.
Participants in the survey, on the other hand, said they wanted to see food safety methods used that were similar to the approach used in clinical drug trials.
"Regulations should be in place that address the entire process, these should be monitored and enforced and should be fully transparent to the consumer," the FSA reported the participants as believing. "Clones and their offspring should be fully traceable throughout the food chain and food should be labelled to enable consumers to make an informed choice."
However the FSA spokesperson stressed that the survey would "absolutely not" lead to a re-think about how safety assessments are carried out. "It is not a survey about how we do safety assessments," she said. "We were not talking to scientists."
Overall, the survey participants said cloning is very different from assisted reproductive technologies, which were seen as "giving Mother Nature a helping hand". Cloning, on the other hand, is seen as "interfering with nature".
Particular areas of concern for consumers related to whether or not there would be any consumer benefits, and what the consequences may be.
They "struggled to find any tangible consumer benefits", said the FSA, and expressed concern that the main motive would be "financial, for biotech companies, livestock breeders, farmers or food retailers."
They were worried that the food products from cloned animals or their offspring could be unsafe for human consumption, somehow creating new diseases. The fear is that the impact on human health would be seen only a long time in the future, after the products had been in the food chain for many years.
The FSA said this was driven by the perception of a high incidence of miscarriages, deformation, and short lifespan of cloned animals.
When the participants were given information about Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), the technique used to clone cattle and other farm animals, they became concerned about the impact this would have on animal welfare. Concerns about animal welfare and agriculture practices do not fall within FSA's remit, however, but that of DEFRA (the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).
Ethical doubts were also raised, as to whether mankind has the moral right to pursue a course of action such as cloning.
As to any future efforts to build consumer confidence in cloned food, the FSA spokesperson said that would be down to industry, if it went that route, and not the agency.
In any case, she said that entry of products derived from clones was likely to be "much further down the line".