Animal testing curbed - but for the victims the change is only cosmetic

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REJOICING THROUGHOUT the animal rights world over the government ban on testing cosmetic ingredients yesterday was tempered by the knowledge that this will only affect a tiny percentage of all animal testing, and could simply move the problem abroad.

Cruelty-conscious shoppers looking for a new tube of foundation cream today can be no more certain that their chosen product has been developed without the use of animals than they were before the ban came into effect, campaigners say.

"The fact remains that this is not going to stop the vast majority of products on the shelves being animal-tested," said Mike Baker, chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).

Home Office statistics for show that of the 2.64 million "procedures" carried out in Britain on animals last year, which resulted in the deaths of the most involved, only 1,266 related to testing cosmetics or their ingredients. Testing in the areas of genetic engineering and defence research, meanwhile, are growing dramatically.

The immediate problem for the campaigners is that British-based cosmetics companies already buy most of the ingredients for their products abroad, where the ban does not apply. Those carrying out their own testing in the UK can now have the work done in any number of European laboratories.

It is estimated that more than 30,000 experiments to test cosmetic products were carried out last year in European Union countries, of which about 27,000 took place in France alone.

In addition France, together with the United States and Japan, are the bases for the largest companies, such as L'Oreal, Procter & Gamble and Shiseido, which make most of the cosmetics on sale in this country. These are the countries where most testing takes place.

The British ban came into effect with the announcement yesterday that the companies still holding licences to test animals for cosmetic purposes had voluntarily agreed to give them up. The Home Office will not be issuing any new licences.

Despite drawbacks, campaigners conceded that the move constitutes a major advance for their cause. "This is the first time that a whole class of testing has been stopped by government action because it is seen to be not worth the suffering involved," Mr Baker said.

Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, agreed: "It is a very useful and important marker. After years of the industry saying that these tests are necessary, it is now admitting that you don't need to do them."

Both said the argument would now also be moved abroad, and that campaigning would continue until a world-wide ban was achieved.

The next stage is to lobby the EU to strengthen regulations due to be introduced at the end of this month. At present, these will only ban animal-testing on finished products, as was the case in Britain before yesterday. But hopes are that the Government will now be pushing for a tougher ban on ingredients as well.

"This would be extremely significant, because while it would be relatively easy for companies to move their testing to Europe, it would be far more expensive to take it all to the US or Japan," Mr Baker said.

If only from an economic motive this would encourage the development of alternative tests, and once these had been established as valid for cosmetics they could then be adopted in other areas which currently rely on animal tests.

Ultimately, campaigners are agreed that the real power to effect change will come from consumers. To that end the first internationally recognised "cruelty-free" cosmetics symbols are being launched today backed by sympathetic stars, including Helen Mirren, and called The Humane Cosmetics Standard. The idea is that this will be stamped on products found to be free from animal testing at any stage after scrutiny by independent inspectors.

Other areas of animal testing, however, are less vulnerable to outraged consumers. Government figures show more than one-third of all animal tests currently being carried out in Britain are related to pharmaceutical and medical research and development. Almost another third was accounted for by "fundamental research", often carried out at universities and designed to increase understanding of animal biology.

While figures continue to show a downward trend - the 1997 total was 3 per cent down on the previous year - the area of genetic testing has shown a large increase as this technology has grown in importance. Experiments involving "genetically manipulated animals", for instance, numbered 352,732 - a rise of 64 per cent since 1995.

"This is the new animal abuse for the 21st century. It seems that we are finding increasingly advanced ways to cause suffering," Mr Baker said.

Figures for animal experimentation by the Ministry of Defence, are separate from those published by the Home Office and predictably shrouded in secrecy. Public outcry has followed the revelation of the widespread use of animals for testing ammunition, weapons systems and medical procedures. This includes shooting and blasting pigs, because of the similarity of their flesh to that of humans.

Statistics obtained by Animal Aid for the Porton Down research establishment show 11,221 animals were used in experiments in 1996, more than double the number used in 1992.