NPR logo Cloned Cattle Offspring Slip Into U.K. Food Supply, Causing Uproar

Public Health

Cloned Cattle Offspring Slip Into U.K. Food Supply, Causing Uproar

Men wearing face masks of British Prime Minister David Cameron demonstrate in London for a ban on the cloning of cattle for human consumption. British authorities are investigating how offspring of a cloned U.S. cow came to be slaughtered and eaten in Britain. Alastair Grant/AP hide caption

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Alastair Grant/AP

Britain's newspapers have gone into overdrive about the potential health risks posed by several descendants of cloned cattle that have found their way into the food supply.

Details are still sketchy, but the U.K. Food Standards Agency now says that two descendants of a clone are believed to have been sold to slaughterhouses there. According to the FSA, the cattle were the offspring of a cloned cow in the U.S. and were shipped to Britain as embryos. "Meat from both of these animals will have been eaten," they report in a statement.

Milk from other descendants may have also entered the food chain. Overall somewhere around 100 clone descendants are believed to be in Britain, though that number could rise.

Clones are still a relatively new technology in farming, but the idea goes like this: Farmers can clone their best animals, and then breed them (clones are too expensive to be consumed directly). Descendants of the clones can be sold for a profit, or used for production.

If there's one thing that you can rely on from the British press, it’s a certain degree of, um, creativity when it comes to covering the situation. The government "is unconcerned whether the hamburger your child is eating contains meat from Freddie Frankenstein II," Gerald Warner writes in The Telegraph. " 'Super calves' have secretly spread into our food system," reads a headline in the Daily Mail.

In reality, the health risks from descendants of clones, and indeed clones themselves, are no different than the health risks from naturally bred animals. Here in the U.S., scientists have compared milk and meat from cloned and conventional cattle and found essentially no difference between the two.

In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration declared clones and clone offspring safe to consume, though it requested a voluntary moratorium on introducing cloned animals into the food supply, pending further discussion with consumers. The European Food Safety Authority reached similar conclusions, though the discussion in Europe is (obviously) ongoing.

The real issue is with the Food Standards Agency. The FSA was set up in 2000 because of the public’s loss of faith following an epidemic in the mid-1990s of vJCD, a deadly neurological disease that comes from contaminated beef.

The British media view the cloning debacle as yet another example of regulators letting down the British public. In the words of Billy Joel, it’s a matter of trust