By Yasuaki Yamaura
In April 2008, Japan’s Food Safety Commission (FSC) was asked by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour to make an assessment of the safety of food from cloned animals. Somatic cell cloning has recently emerged as an issue also in Japan, and on February 29, 2009, a special assessment group on cloned animals set up in the FSC’s Expert Committee announced that such food was safe.
On March 24, 2009, the Food Safety Commission once more discussed this topic. However, it became clear that there were a number of unresolved issues and serious problems related to this technology. CUJ raised several questions at this meeting. We were told that in Japan, some 1,240,000 cows are slaughtered annually, and among them approximately 720,000 have some defects or show symptoms of disease. The officials reluctantly admitted that in such cases, the lesions or sick parts are simply removed, and the rest of the carcass is used for food. Clearly, we must assume that the same practice will continue also in the case of sick cloned animals.
Many cases of stillbirths and birth defects connected with cloning
In July 1998, the first two calves were born from cows cloned using somatic cell technology at a research center at Kinki University in Ishikawa prefecture. By September 2008, some 557 calves have been produced in this way. Among them, however, more than half have had unintended premature deaths: 78 calves were born dead (stillbirth), 91 died just after birth, and 136 died from different illnesses.
Several reports have been published outlining these problems associated with cloning in Japan. In 2000, an interim report about the status of the research was published by Dr. Susumu Kumagai at Tokyo University. He also published a report in 2003 reviewing the status of the subsidies for scientific research from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour. The report notes that “although there were many cases of stillbirths etc, feeding rats with meat or milk from the animals that had grown up normally when their physiological functions were not different from other animals, did not impair the health of the rats.”
However, in our opinion, there has been insufficient investigation regarding the causes of the defects associated with cloning technology.
Japan’s cloning debate follows the United States
In January 2008, the US Food and Drug Administration published its appraisal of foods from cloned animals, concluding that it is as safe as food from conventional animals. In April 2008, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour then followed suit by announcing that it would also make an assessment of such food, and the Food Safety Commission started its deliberation in May. A special assessment group announced its appraisal in January 2009, concluding that such food is safe.
We found the following problems with the appraisal:
- The basis for the conclusion depends on groundless assumptions that cloned animals are healthy, because they survived to a certain age.
- There is insufficient scientific explanation on why cloned animals have so many stillbirths, deaths just after birth and from various diseases.
- Nothing is referred to the well-known problems with cloned animals: the effects on the descendant generations, shortened telomere length, abnormalities in genome imprinting, bad effects on the surrogate mother, etc.
- The evaluation of the safety of meat and milk from cloned cattle by making comparisons with ordinary foods ignores the animal welfare aspects and the environmental aspects, as well as the ethical problems.
- Only brief summaries of the actual status of the health of the cloned animals were released to the public.
Preparation for future imports of cloned animal products from the U.S.?
Meanwhile, in Europe, the public opposition to cloning remains strong. In July 2008, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) began its safety assessment of food from cloned animals. Its mandate also includes the ethical and environmental aspects and they are still deliberating the issue.
In the United States, experts such as Michael Hansen from Consumers Union are pointing out a number of problems with cloning (inherent deficiencies due to the somatic cell cloning technology, increased need for antibiotics for offspring survival, inheritance of serious defects, etc). This shows that it is important that the consumer perspective is taken into account.
Why does the Japanese government want to announce so promptly that cloned animals are safe? The real reason should lie in the fact that Japan will be faced with the import of meat and milk from cloned animals produced in the United States, should such foods be released on the market there. Will Japan be forced, again, to lower its domestic standards to allow imports of meat from cloned pigs and cows?