European Union negotiators on Tuesday abandoned widely popular new legislation that would have banned cloning animals to produce food, after all-night talks bogged down in disagreement.
Last-ditch negotiations ended at 7 a.m. after representatives of the European Parliament and the EU governments could not find a compromise on how to treat the offspring of cloned animals _ despite overwhelming agreement on banning food from the actual clone.
The collapse of talks caps three years of back and forth between the parliament and the European Council, which represents the 27 EU states, on the so-called "novel food" regulation.
It leaves the EU with its 1997 law that requires special authorization for milk and meat from cloned animals, but does not ban the practice of cloning nor the import of food from cloned animals. It is a victory for food producers from countries such as United States where cloning is more advanced than in Europe.
After originally pushing for a ban also on all food from the first generation of offspring of cloned animals, the parliament wanted food producers to at least label those products.
But the Council charged that such labeling was "misleading" and "unfeasible" since there was no effective tracking of such animals or products.
The parliament's demands "in practice would have required drawing a family tree for each slice of cheese or salami," Sandor Fazekas, Hungary's minister of rural development who was leading negotiations for the Council, said in a statement.
There is no scientific evidence of negative health effects from eating food from cloned animals or their offspring, according to the European Commission, which proposed the new legislation in 2008.
However, the practice remains controversial, since a large majority of cloned animals die shortly after birth or after conception.
More than 60 percent of EU citizens think animal cloning is "morally wrong," while 84 percent are concerned that the long-term effects of animal cloning on nature are unknown, according to an EU survey from 2008.
The Commission sees the issue mostly as a threat to animal welfare, which is why it proposed a temporary ban of cloning to produce food in the EU as well as the banning the import of such food, said John Dalli, the commissioner for health and consumer policy.
"From the first offspring onwards there is no animal welfare issue," said Dalli.
There are no definite figures on how much food made from clones or their offspring there is in the EU. In Europe, there are few cloned animals and they exist mostly for scientific research purposes.
Concerns revolve mostly around animals, embryos and semen imported from the United States _ and to a lesser extent Argentina, Brazil and Japan _ where cloning is more advanced. The U.S. has a voluntary moratorium on sales of foodstuff taken from clones, but there are no rules for the descendants of cloned animals.
The Commission says only about 2 percent of all semen and embryos used in European agriculture and 5 percent of meat consumed in the EU comes from third countries.
Because the offspring of cloned animals isn't tracked at the moment, requiring food coming from them to be labeled immediately would be impossible and could even break international trade rules, the Council said.
"This 'solution' would have given a false sense of security to consumers and risked dragging us into a full blown trade war," Fazekas said.
During the negotiations the Council offered a compromise which would have introduced labeling of fresh meat once it has been tracked for some time, but the parliament said that was insufficient.
"The problem is that we don't know what's on our plate," said Kartika Liotard, a member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party who led the negotiations for the lawmakers.
Liotard and other MEP said focusing just on the actual clones _ and not their offspring _ defeated the purpose of the legislation, since cloning an animal costs tens of thousands of euros (dollars).
"You're not going to turn such an expensive animal into hamburgers," she said.
Others said the failure to find compromise leaves the EU with no new legislation at all, ultimately hurting consumers.
"I am shocked by the approach of the EU ministers and their disregard for the will of EU citizens," said Dagmar Roth-Berendt, a Socialist MEP who took part in the 12-hour-long marathon talks. "Cloning is unnecessary and ethically unjustifiable. We do not live in a state of emergency where sheep, pigs and cows have to produce bigger proceeds."
She said the failure to come up with new legislation risks Europe being flooded with "billions of liters of cloned milk."