Cloned cows on a farm outside Austin, Texas, in 2005. British food safety officials are trying to determine how a bull from the embryo of a cloned U.S. cow came to be slaughtered and eaten in Britain.
Cloned cows on a farm outside Austin, Texas, in 2005. British food safety officials are trying to determine how a bull from the embryo of a cloned U.S. cow came to be slaughtered and eaten in Britain. Thomas Terry/AP
Britain is in the middle of a new media storm over the safety of beef — but this time it is not about mad cows, but cloned ones.
Earlier this week a Scottish farmer admitted that he had raised cows derived from an American clone. Meat from at least one of the animals was sold to wholesalers and probably ended up in stores.
British government experts say there's no danger. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration says it is legal and safe for meat from the offspring of cloned animals to enter the supply chain, though in reality a relatively small amount has made it to store shelves.
But previous food scandals have left the British public suspicious.
The cloning "scandal," as it's been dubbed, has been a top headline all week. It's not illegal to sell meat and dairy products derived from cloned animals in Britain. But such products are supposed to be sold as a novelty food — like kangaroo meat or chocolate-covered African bees — and licensed and labeled accordingly.
That shouldn't be a problem, says Scottish beef farmer Donald Biggar. He says British livestock tracing standards are among the highest in the world. "Each animal — particularly in the beef world — has its own passport, which records its date of birth. So its age, its breeding and everything about it is known when it goes to the processor," says Biggar, chairman of Quality Meat Scotland, an industry group.
But the passport law was passed before large-scale animal cloning became feasible. On the British form, there is simply no box labeled "American clone" for farmers to tick. And British agriculture officials were apparently unaware of the restrictions because they were imposed by another bureaucracy — the Food Standards Agency.
In the ensuing media uproar, British officials have conceded that they have no clear idea how many descendants of cloned cows are on British farms. But officials have repeatedly assured consumers that there are no known health risks from eating cloning-derived products.
In Europe, concern about how animals are bred and treated seems to weigh at least as heavily as any safety issues. Last month, EU lawmakers approved legislation that would ban all cloned meat and other products from the European food supply.
Dairy farmer Richard Park, on his organic farm in Britain's Lake District, says the replication that cloning represents is against everything he stands for.
"For thousands of years farmers have improved their dairy cows by using the best of the next generation, not by maintaining what they've already got," Park says.
It is too soon to determine whether British beef sales are down as a result of the uproar. Certainly the consumer panic predicted by the tabloids has yet to materialize.
Shopping this week in the meat section of a south London supermarket, 76-year-old Margaret Masarra purchased chopped beef for stewing. "To be honest with you I don't worry about that," she says of the "cloned" beef. "I grew up in Ireland and we were glad to get any kind of meat when I was growing up."
But another shopper, Evelyn Bui, says she's disturbed that British agriculture officials simply cannot say whether meat or milk derived from cloned cows is sitting on store shelves, right now. "It's not meant to go through the food chain — and it did," she says. "So that's very serious. Because we don't know what will happen later, do we?"
It is customers like her who are keeping British farmers awake nights. After the mad cow disease scares of the 1990s, and the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, farmers had hoped public fears about the safety of Britain's food supply were laid to rest for good.