Scientists on the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) were asked to consider a hypothetical application under the EU Novel Food Regulation for the approval of meat and milk from cloned cattle and their progeny.
The committee concluded that food from cloned cattle and their offspring showed "no substantial difference to conventionally produced meat and milk, and was therefore unlikely to present a food safety risk".
However, consumers might nonetheless want to see such products labelled, it added.
The FSA said its board would discuss the committee’s conclusions in December, before advising ministers.
Complex regulatory landscape
Currently, the law demands that foodstuffs produced from cloned animals - whose DNA matches that of their conventional predecessors precisely - must pass such a safety evaluation before gaining authorisation under the EU Novel Food Regulation.
However, the situation has been complicated by the European Commission's (EC's) October announcement that it intends to propose legislation early next year to ban animal cloning for food production within the EU, although it favours permitting imports of such foodstuffs from the US and elsewhere.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reaffirmed in September that there was "no indication" of food safety differences between conventional cattle and pork food products and those derived from clones; however, EC health and consumer commissioner John Dalli told reporters in October that the Commission was proposing the ban on ethical grounds, due to concerns over the industrial production of cloned meat.
Higher mortality rates
Moreover, EFSA also reaffirmed its 2008 scientific opinion that animal mortality rates and developmental abnormalities were higher in clones than conventional animals: it considers epigenetic dysregulation - the reprogramming of the donor cell - as the principal cause of these problems and even premature death.
The ACNFP noted that there was no evident difference in composition between the meat and milk of conventional animals, clones or their progeny, and therefore the latter were “unlikely to present any food safety risk”.
Differences between conventional cattle and the progeny of clones were unlikely to extend beyond the second generation, it added.
Exponents of cloned meat and milk cite better genetic consistency and productivity of animal herds, along with the ability to breed larger animals that are more resistant to disease that could potentially fulfil growing world demand for food. But not everyone is convinced.
Peter Stevenson, chief policy advisor, Compassion in World Farming, told FoodManufacture.co.uk that although cloned meat “may be safe to eat – in truth it may be too early to tell” the FSA’s announcement could spell “welfare disaster for the animals involved”.
“Many clones die in the early stages of life from heart failure, breathing difficulties and defective immune systems,” he said.
“EFSA has concluded that the health and welfare of a significant proportion of clones are ‘adversely affected, often severely and with a fatal outcome’.”
Soil Association queries judgement
A Soil Association statement was equally damning, saying that the ACNFPs safety conclusions were "not good enough" given insufficient long-term studies assessing potential risks for human health or the impossibility of knowing at this stage "whether or not we are breeding genetic weaknesses into our food supply".
Head of policy Emma Hockridge added: "Industrialising the farming and food chain, and treating animals as little more than factory commodities, raises serious questions about both the ethics and the resilience of our present systems for feeding ourselves. Cloning is generally pursued to aid the intensive production of livestock to produce ever-higher milk yields, regardless of the impact that this has on the animal well being."
Cloned food hit the headlines this August, after it emerged that meat from the offspring of a cloned cow was eaten in the UK last year after a Highland farmer bought two bulls born from embryos of a cloned cow reared in the US. The FSA said at the time that it did not know how many cloned embryos could have entered the UK.
Under EU legislation, Novel Foods are defined as those not consumed to any significant degree in the EU prior to May 1997, when the first related legislation was enacted. The definition includes innovative foods, food produced using new technology or production processes and food traditionally consumed outside of the EU.