Europe's farmers are to be banned from adding four widely used growth-enhancing, antibiotic drugs to animal feed because of concern about the health of people who eat the meat.
The ban, intended to be phased in over six months beginning in January, will affect the European Union's more than 300 million citizens. Between two-thirds and four-fifths of Europe's cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry are thought to be given antibiotics of some kind while they are being raised.
But pharmaceutical companies are threatening to contest the Dec. 14 majority ruling by 12 of the EU's 15 farm ministers. They claim it is unjustified and that it will hit farmers' incomes as well as their own revenues, and push up food prices.
Hitting at the EU order, a spokesman for Britain's National Farmers' Union said: "The transfer of antibiotic response from animals to humans is yet to be proved. If Brussels has any more information, we would love to see it. This move is premature."
If the drug companies succeed in challenging the ban, they will be reversing a recent trend away from the use of antibiotics by Europe's farmers.
The order to stop routine use of the drugs - made by international drug giants Rhone-Poulenc, Alpharma, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly - in feed to pigs and poultry greatly tightens the EU's already strict limits. It comes after months of political debate within the EU.
The ban was proposed by a panel of EU scientists and backed by the European Commission in Brussels.
Where countries stand
Britain, Sweden, Germany, and France led the campaign to exclude the use of the drugs as growth-enhancers.
Three EU nations - Spain, Portugal, and Belgium - abstained in the vote. These countries argue that the ban will push up the retail price of meat by 10 percent.
Denmark and Sweden already enforce a unilateral ban on the drugs outlawed by the EU.
British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said Dec. 14 the potential danger to human health would outweigh any increase in the cost of meat.
He added: "On the precautionary principle, it's right to suspend the use of these four growth promoters until more evidence emerges."
There are already widespread concerns in the medical world about over-prescription of antibiotics to humans.
An EU official said: "Antibiotics passed through the food chain, when added to the antibiotics taken directly, may be lowering our resistance to disease."
Used to speed growth
Farmers began adding antibiotics to animal feed more than half a century ago. They are extensively used in high-volume poultry farming and pig production. Farmers claim the drugs keep stock healthy and make them grow more quickly.
But several international bodies, including the World Health Organization, have swung against the widespread use of the drugs.
In Britain, the House of Lords science and technology committee and the National Consumer Council have come out against antibiotics in animal feed.
If the EU successfully resists industry attempts to overturn the ban, European farmers will be left with only four antibiotics to choose from. A few years ago they were using more than 20, many of which have already been banned. Pressure on the remaining four is likely to intensify.
A report last week by the Soil Association, which speaks for Britain's organic farmers, said the use of antibiotics had increased by up to 150 times in the past 30 years.
"We must create a new climate in which animals are kept in more natural, less stressful conditions and are routinely treated with respect, rather than antibiotics," it said.
Crop concerns, too
The EU ban on antibiotics coincides with growing concern in Britain that genetically modified (GM) crops are proving a threat to wildlife and indigenous plants.
The Independent on Sunday newspaper reported Dec. 13 that a government report on the effects of growing GM crops had been suppressed.
The paper said the report concludes that there are insufficient safeguards to stop the creation of hybrid multi-resistant plants. This can happen when pollen and other plant material are accidentally transferred from GM crops to plants in nearby areas.
Britain's Health and Safety Executive, which monitors GM crop trials, said that between April and October more than 1 in 10 of the 49 sites inspected had been breaking regulations governing trials.
In evidence presented to members of Britain's House of Commons this summer, Tim Galvin of the US Department of Agriculture said the two countries' ecologies are different. The effects of growing a GM crop in Britain could differ widely from effects in the US, he said.
British farms are much smaller than most in the US and are commonly surrounded by dense hedgerows, which provide shelter and a living environment for animals and birds.
Adrian Bebb, food and biotechnology campaigner for the British environmental group Friends of the Earth, says that contact between GM crops and hedgerows on British farms is "always likely."