BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union announced plans on Tuesday to temporarily ban the use of animal cloning for food production, while allowing imports of food derived from the offspring of clones from the United States and elsewhere.
The report from the European Commission followed a call by EU lawmakers in July for a total ban on food derived from cloned animals and their traditionally bred offspring, citing ethical concerns over the industrial production of cloned meat.
The Commission said a temporary five-year EU ban on cloning for food production was justified on animal welfare grounds, but said banning imports of food from the offspring of clones was unnecessary and would disrupt global trade.
"Food from cloned animals is safe. In fact, the scientific opinion is that it cannot be differentiated in any way from food from normally bred animals. The issue is animal welfare," EU Health and Consumer Commissioner John Dalli told reporters.
Food derived from the offspring of clones presents no such animal welfare issues, and banning its sale and import would be impossible because the origin is untraceable, Dalli said.
"Such a prohibition would lead to a ban of imports of any food of animal origin (meat, milk and processed products) from third countries allowing the cloning technique," the report said.
"We're not going to regulate for the world," Dalli added.
But animal welfare groups criticized the Commission's decision, saying it had bowed to pressure from third countries.
"We do not accept the Commission's position that it would be impossible to enforce a ban that includes the offspring of cloned animals, as (other) meat traceability systems are already in place," said Sonja Van Tichelen, director of the Eurogroup for Animals.
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Animal cloning, which uses DNA transfer to create an exact genetic copy of an animal, currently has a success rate of below 20 percent as most cloned animals die during or shortly after birth.
The technique is complex and costly, ensuring that cloned animals are unlikely to be used directly as food, but they can be bred traditionally to produce offspring that share similar traits, such as high milk production or rapid growth.
The United States is the most advanced country in terms of animal cloning for food production, with estimates provided by companies suggesting that "thousands of cattle" and "hundreds of pigs" have been cloned there so far, the Commission said.
The U.S. currently has a voluntary moratorium on the marketing of food from cloned animals but not from their offspring.
"Therefore products of offspring of clones have entered the food chain, not only in the U.S. but also in other parts of the world, not least in Brazil where there are five companies involved in cloning," said the report.
The five-year moratorium proposed by the Commission would also cover imports of live clones from outside the 27-nation bloc, but imports of embryos and semen from clones would be allowed, provided that operators follow proposed traceability rules.
That means EU producers would also be free to sell food products derived from the offspring of clones, provided they import the necessary genetic material from the U.S. or elsewhere.
The Commission said it would publish legislative proposals introducing the new rules next year, which must then be jointly approved by EU governments and lawmakers.
There is likely to be opposition to the plans in the European Parliament, which has called for a complete ban on food from clones and their offspring. EU governments have said the sale of food from the offspring of clones should be allowed.
In August, it emerged that meat from the offspring of a cloned cow was placed on the market by a dairy farm in Scotland, which led some British supermarkets to pledge not to sell any meat from clones or their young.
(Reporting by Charlie Dunmore, editing by Jane Baird)