Cloned cattle investigation stirs row in Britain

Britain faced fresh questions over its food standards regime on Thursday after it emerged that meat from two offspring of a cloned cow had entered the food chain.

The two bulls whose meat was eaten by unwitting members of the public were among eight cattle conceived using embryos harvested from a cloned cow in the United States.

It is thought there may be more than 100 descendants of the cow in Britain and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the food safety watchdog, said late on Wednesday that it was trying to track down all of them.

While experts insist that eating meat from the descendants of cloned cows poses no known risk to human health, regulators are facing criticism for allowing the offspring of a cloned cow to be sold.

Britain has been hit by a number of farming scares in recent years, damaging the fortunes of its agricultural sector.

Perhaps the most notorious was an outbreak of BSE, also known as mad cow disease, which led to the culling of millions of animals and to the European Union introducing an export ban on British cattle and their meat in 1996. The ban was kept in place for 10 years.

Since then, there have been outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and, most recently, thousands of turkeys were slaughtered in 2007 after H5N1 avian flu was detected on a farm in eastern England.

Under European law, foodstuffs produced from cloned animals must pass a safety evaluation and gain authorisation before they are marketed.

The FSA is responsible for authorising "novel foods" such as meat and other products from clones and their offspring and said it had neither granted any such authorisations nor been asked to do so.

Its investigations started earlier this week after a newspaper report that milk from the offspring of a cloned cow had gone on sale to the public.

But as it carried out this investigation, it discovered that meat from one bull, Dundee Paratrooper, which was slaughtered in July last year, had entered the food chain.

Local council officials identified its owner as farmer Callum Innes of Auldearn in northern Scotland.

Hours later, it also confirmed that meat from Parable, another bull which was slaughtered in May this year, was likely to have been eaten.

Records from Holstein UK, the body responsible for registering all of the breed's pedigree cows and bulls on farms, revealed that three of the cattle born from the US clone had produced 97 calves.

Smiddiehill Paratrooper had 38 offspring, Smiddiehill Perfect had 58, while Smiddiehill Dundee Paradise had one, according to details on the website.

A spokesman for the FSA told AFP that its investigations were continuing and that it was working to trace all of the offspring, though it could not confirm how many there were.

It had previously admitted that it did not know how many embryos from cloned animals had come into Britain from abroad.

The FSA is facing growing criticism for its handling of the affair, with the Daily Telegraph questioning in an editorial its ability "to act as an effective watchdog of the food industry".

"The lesson of the mishandling of BSE in beef cattle and salmonella in egg production is that a scare story can flare quickly to the point where public confidence is undermined and the farming industry is affected, damaging foreign trade," added The Herald, one of Scotland's national newspapers.

"It is worrying, therefore, that regulators appear to have been caught napping with regard to cloned cattle."

kah-sr/pcj/co

 

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