ANN Stevens spent most of Christmas morning being interrogated by her teenage daughters. In addition to the usual tangerines and chocolate doubloons, she had tipped a pile of carefully collected cosmetics into the stockings at the foot of their beds. Matters got off to a good start when the contents were ripped open eagerly next morning. But their happy teenage faces soon darkened when they began closely to examine the cosmetics for statements about animal testing.

For many young people - and no small number of adults - animal testing is an extremely serious matter these days. 'Everyone one of those products says something different,' one of the daughters told me. 'And in the end you don't really know what any of it means.'

A quick tour of store shelves proved how right she was. BodyShop, long the paragon among producers of 'cruelty-free' cosmetics, states only that the company is Against Animal Testing. The labels on Sainsbury's J Range say it is Produced without cruelty to animals while its Nature's Compliments line says Sainsbury insists that no animal testing was carried out on this product or any of its ingredients.

Most shoppers would take it for granted that one range was 'kinder' than the other, but a Sainsbury spokeswoman insisted not: the J Range is mostly make-up, so the labels are smaller and there is only room for the shorter version. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer prints no statement on any of its cosmetics. Does this mean M&S supports animal testing? Not at all, its press office insists.

The number of tests for cosmetics on animals has fallen by nearly 80 per cent since 1987, and accounts for less than two per cent of the animal testing which is carried out. But according to the RSPCA's most recent figures, more than 3,000 tests for cosmetics and toiletries were still done on animals in Britain in 1991. These include the Draize eye test on guinea pigs for eye and skin irritancy; testing toothpaste on rats that have first been fed on a high sugar diet so their teeth rot; and testing antiperspirants on the footpads of mice, the only place where they have sweat glands.

Establishing which companies still animal-test is not easy. Some, like Sainsbury, deny it altogether, while others may use animal testing for drugs but not for cosmetics. Boots (the target of a spate of bomb attacks by animals rights protesters over Christmas) is an example.

One rule of thumb, says Dr Maggy Jennings, head of research animals at the RSPCA, is to watch out for the use or development of new ingredients. 'Virtually all new ingredients being created will have beeen tested on animals at some point,' she says.

Some companies have made more progress than others on finding alternatives to testing on animals, but labelling is far from clear who these are. 'The main problem,' says Dr Jennings, 'is that there is no legal definition of these terms.'

The principle question to ask is whether labels distinguish between tests done on the final product and those conducted on ingredients. The second is to read between the lines, to check whether firms also insist that neither suppliers nor agents do tests of their own.

The RSPCA has an 'A' list of companies who refuse to use ingredients tested after a certain date, known as the cut-off system. Sainsbury uses no products tested after 1985, while Beauty Without Cruelty's cut- off date is 1976. The 'B' list is reserved for those who only turn away ingredients that have been tested in the past five years, known as the 'five-year rolling rule'. These include BodyShop and Cosmetics-to- Go. Marks & Spencer insists neither system can be properly policed, and therefore it disregards both, saying: 'We do not make claims that could not be proven.' The company still maintains, however, that St Michael products are not tested on animals.

The RSPCA says that people who are serious about animal welfare should try to check whether companies contribute to research on alternative testing procedures, and are active in lobbying for changes in the law on animal testing in Britain.

The EC recently voted to ban animal testing on cosmetics, skin and hair care ingredients from 1998, unless no satisfactory alternative method is found. This loophole should be closed, say the greenest manufacturers. The EC's 'eco' labelling system still refuses to include animal testing in its criteria for ecological endorsement. This too, the companies say, needs improving.

Meanwhile, Ann Stevens' daughters are doing the rounds of supermarkets, to make their own thorough check.

(Photograph omitted)