May 24, 2024

E.U. Talks Fail on Food Imports From Clone Offspring

BRUSSELS — Marathon talks aimed at regulating imports into Europe of meat and dairy products from animals bred from clones collapsed Tuesday because of disagreements between governments and the European Parliament over how sweeping the rules should be.

The failure, while bemoaned by European consumer groups, is likely to be welcomed by farmers in the United States, Brazil, and other countries where cloning for food is gaining ground, as well as by food manufacturers, who will get an open-ended reprieve from any new and potentially costly labeling requirements.

Negotiators for European governments accused the Parliament of “political grandstanding” in pushing for unworkable rules “that would have required drawing a family tree for each slice of cheese or salami.” The new rules, the negotiators added, risked setting off a trade war similar to the long-running battle between Europe and the United States over genetically modified crops.

But the Parliament’s negotiators, led in part by a left-wing Dutch lawmaker, Kartika Liotard, insisted on tougher rules for imports and said they were sticking to principles, citing surveys that show European public opinion is overwhelmingly against cloning for food.

Ms. Liotard said at a news conference Tuesday that the Parliament’s negotiators already had softened their position from a complete ban on imports to accepting a labeling system. She referred to cloning as “pure animal abuse.”

The collapse of the talks highlights the growing ability of the European Parliament to influence decision-making in areas like trade and privacy, a rise in influence that has fueled tension with Washington over surveillance of bank transactions to track terrorism suspects.

Some members of Parliament suggested that the breakdown of the talks showed that several lawmakers had been overzealous in exercising the powers, which were granted under a E.U. treaty that took effect in late 2009. “Sadly, our intransigence has meant that we have lost the chance to have any regulation at all,” said Struan Stevenson, a European Parliament member from Scotland.

The plan rejected on Tuesday also would have regulated nanomaterials, or very small particles, in food, and banned cloning for food on E.U. territory.

Denmark is the only E.U. country that has banned cloning for food outright. But the practice in other parts of the 27-country European Union remains rare or non-existent.

The failure of the talks means that anyone who wants to market meat or dairy products from clones produced on E.U. territory still would need to seek permission under existing regulations from the late 1990s that were meant to cover newly developed ingredients. So far, no one has sought such permission, according to the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm. A formal ban would have pre-empted that possibility.

The more problematic issue is how to regulate imports of milk and meat products — and large amounts of eggs, semen and embryos — from cloned animals raised in countries where the technique is used, like the United States, Argentina and Brazil. The precise amount of food imports from clones and their descendants is unknown, according to the commission. But imports of genetic materials like semen used for inseminating animals in Europe constitute about 2 percent of Europe’s supply, while imports make up about 5 percent of the beef consumed in Europe.

These meat and dairy products from the offspring of clones currently receive no prior assessment or labels — a situation that now is set to continue.

Rather than banning those products outright and setting off a fight with the United States at the World Trade Organization, E.U. officials and lawmakers had been expected to agree to set up a system within two years to label foods derived from clones. The aim was to give European consumers, a majority of who oppose cloning for food, a choice.

In a survey three years ago for the commission, 83 percent of respondents said that special labeling should be required if food products from the offspring of cloned animals are sold in shops. The survey, carried out in July 2008 among 25,000 E.U. citizens, also found that 58 percent believed that cloning animals for food should never be justified.

Representatives from Hungary, which holds the rotating E.U. presidency, declared the negotiations over at about 7 a.m. Tuesday after 11 hours of talks. The Hungarians said that they could not adjust their offer further without the risk of provoking a trade war. They blamed members of Parliament for failing to compromise and for demanding regulations that were impractical and unfeasible.

“You could sense that some members of Parliament wanted to show the way forward to the rest of the planet on cloning,” said an E.U. official who attended the talks but who asked for anonymity because he was likely to be involved in future dealings with the Parliament.

But members of Parliament said that an offer to label “fresh beef” from the first generation of clones within one year was inadequate, because it failed to guarantee that a myriad of other imported meats and dairy products from the descendents of clones would eventually be labeled, too.

The offer was tantamount to “throwing sand in the eyes of consumers,” said Gianni Pittella, an Italian member of Parliament who helped to lead negotiations.

Cloning can give more farmers access to animals with leaner meat, greater milk-producing potential and enhanced disease resistance, according to proponents. Far from being freakish or unsafe, many farmers say, cloning is one of a number of breeding techniques that are becoming mainstays of the industry and deliver better products to consumers. Some of the biggest cattle genetics companies and cooperatives in the world are European-owned.

Monique Goyens of the European Consumers’ Organization said E.U. officials paid too little heed to consumers who were “bypassed by the world trade concerns,” adding, “Which interest were ministers representing exactly?”

Other groups called on food retailers to start voluntarily restricting such products to protect customers.

E.U. food safety regulators have declared that consuming meat and milk from clones poses no special risks. But other groups called on food retailers to start voluntarily restricting such products to guard against as yet unknown long-term health consequences and to maintain standards of animal welfare.

“It will now be up to the private sector, to the retailers, to ban these unwanted products from their shops,” said Sonja Van Tichelen, the director of Eurogroup for Animals, an animal welfare group.

Her group has highlighted the suffering cloning causes during pregnancy and birth, and the fact that many animals die in the process. That view was partly affirmed in early 2008 in a report by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, which advises the European Commission. That report said the risks of animal cruelty were grave enough to keep cloned products off the European market.

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