Pig breeders in Britain have warned that attempts may be under way overseas to breed genetically modified superpigs.
Scientists have identified the genetic fault that causes "muscle doubling" in mammals, which could be used to produce pigs with shanks up to four times bigger than normal.
The concern follows reports that attempts were made two years ago to produce genetically modified salmon that could grow four times faster than normal. The project was abandoned because of fears the fish might escape.
British pig experts emphasised yesterday that they do not want to breed superpigs because of public concerns about animal welfare but they believe the project is a serious possibility elsewhere in the world.
China, which has a long history of pig-breeding, is considered the most likely place where the superpig could be under development, according to Dr John Webb, director of science and genetics at the Cotswold Pig Development Company in Lincolnshire. Dr Webb said the Chinese have a type of pig - a Meishan - which gives birth to 16 piglets rather than the usual 12 and this breed could become the target of genetic modification.
This would give Chinese pig-breeders an advantage in meat production for the global market and undermine European producers who have to work under stricter welfare rules.
A muscular superpig with a bigger breeding capacity and faster growth rate could result in pork meat that is 30 per cent cheaper and so seriously undercut the British and European pig industry, he said.
Last year scientists identified the double-muscling gene, called myostatin, in mice and found they could genetically engineer the laboratory animals to develop oversized muscles virtually to order.
Dr Webb said it would be a relatively simple procedure to reproduce the effect in pigs in order to breed animals with giant hams. "Somebody's going to do it outside Europe and what is it going to do for the farming industry here? If they are already doing it, they are not going to tell us about it," he said.
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