8 March 1996

Consumer reaction uncertain in livestock sector

FEARS over consumer attitudes to genetically modified livestock were raised by Don Curry, Meat and Livestock Commission chairman.

He told delegates that biotechnology advances would be made in the animal feed sector, and in the production of new veterinary medicines. But consumer reaction to those would have to be judged before genetically modified animals for meat or milk production could be introduced.

Consumer confidence was easily influenced in the meat sector and Mr Curry said he could not yet decide if biotechnology would further reduce meat consumption or would enhance the market.

But if biotechnology was applied to animals then the UK could lose out. "I do worry that UK consumer attitudes to animals will put our producers at a disadvantage compared with other countries," Mr Curry said.

He wondered if British consumers would prevent this countrys producers using new technology yet forget their scruples if they could buy cheap products from other countries where biotechnology was used.

Biotechnology opened up great opportunities for the treatment and prevention of animal diseases. And animal welfare groups had to welcome such developments, provided adequate controls were in place and the technology was regulated Mr Curry said.

It also had great potential in animal production. Gene mapping could identify various traits that could speed up the selection of economically important characteristics. "We see this as non-controversial and MLC is currently co-funding the work to identify such markers in pigs and cattle," he said.

Embryo transplants also offered opportunities. Embryos could already be sexed with desirable conformation in the laboratory. "What is more, by transferring nuclei from cultured cells into eggs from which the nucleus has been removed, we are about to be able to produce genetically identical embryos," he added.

But success in a laboratory was a long way from commercial viability, so there was some way to go before the dairy industry could achieve a flow of uniform top quality beef calves from dairy cows.

While he admitted the implication was controversial, Mr Curry said: "Our view is that proper protection of the welfare of the donor, recipient, and resulting animals is the prime need. Given that, test-tube manipulation will prove acceptable, as has artificial insemination."

The final, and most controversial, area where biotechnology could be applied to animals was their modification through gene transfer. &#42