The discovery that the products of the offspring of cloned animals have entered the food chain has once again brought home the complex reality of how much of our food is produced today and the challenges that this raises for informed consumer choice.
Debates about the most appropriate form of regulation needed to ensure effective control over the use of cloning in food production have been going backwards and forwards between the European Parliament and Council over the past few months. But someone has already unknowingly eaten meat from the offspring of a clone.
Does this really matter? Our consumer research suggests it does for a lot of people. A survey we carried out in 2008 found that 80% of people said that they would prefer to buy foods not produced using cloned animals, with only 13% agreeing that cloning should be used to produce animals for food production. People made little distinction between clones and their offspring with about eight in 10 concerned both about eating meat from clones and the offspring of clones; 80% were concerned about eating dairy or other products from these animals; and 91% thought foods produced using cloned animals should be clearly labelled.
Retailers are reflecting this concern, with policies to not sell products of clones or their offspring. However, the last few weeks have highlighted how difficult this may be to achieve in reality. Cloning is already in commercial use for animal breeders in the US as well as several other countries. This raises the prospect that products originating from clones whether semen, embryos, or processed meat and dairy products are already being traded.
The European Food Safety Authority's advice indicates that this is mainly of concern for ethical, animal health and welfare reasons, with the data so far suggesting that there are unlikely to be new food safety issues raised. But the data is limited and EFSA's opinion only applies for cattle and pigs and their offspring.
In line with consumer expectations, the FSA has interpreted the current novel foods regulation as requiring the products of clones and of any offspring to require approval before they enter the food chain. This did not happen in this case and so it is important that effective enforcement action is taken to deter others from circumventing the law. It is also essential that ongoing EU debates about how to revise the novel foods regulation include the assessment and approval of the products of clones and their offspring and clear labelling. Broad ethical and consumer choice considerations, as well as food safety, also need to be taken into account.
But this débâcle has shown tightening controls over end products alone will not be enough. Regulators must get to grips with the status of cloning worldwide and monitor developments. It also requires animal breeders and producers to take a responsible approach and think about the wishes of the consumer.
Full traceability across the supply chain is required, including co-operation from industries and governments abroad so that clones, their semen, embryos and offspring can all be tracked. Only then will consumers have some assurance that they really know where their meat and dairy products come from.
Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?.