The EU's farming chief, Franz Fischler, proposed the ban after being told by scientific experts that antibiotics were becoming less effective as medical treatments because people were ingesting them in meat and creating bacteria resistant to them.
The antibiotics are fed to battery-farmed animals to encourage growth and deter long-standing infections. Pharmaceutical companies, which stand to lose pounds 220m if the ban comes into force in January, have mounted a fierce lobbying campaign against it.
The purpose of the EU ban is "to minimise the risk of development of [antibiotic] resistant bacteria and to preserve the efficacy of antibiotics used in human medicine". No new antibiotics have been developed since the Seventies, and more and more "resistant" strains of bacteria are appearing in hospitals, where doctors are forced to keep back certain varieties of the life-saving drugs as measures of last resort.
Now the spiralling use of antibiotics in agriculture has triggered fears that animal use will also affect humans. Already, one type of the food poisoning bacterium salmonella - often found in eggs - is now resistant to more than one antibiotic, while many other types are immune to up to five drugs.
A report last week by the Soil Association, which represents organic farmers in the UK, found that the use of antibiotics such as tetracycline and penicillin had increased by up to 150 times in the past 30 years, even though it was meant to fall. "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.
The drugs companies have responded rapidly. Alpharma, a multinational company which makes one of the four antibiotics under threat - bacitracin - commissioned Dutch research which, it said, "found the use of bacitracin as a feed additive in animals does not cause adverse human health effects".
Pfizer, which makes another of the listed antibiotics - Virginiamycin - is suing the Danish government over its decision to ban the product from cattle feed. It has also lodged a protest with the EC objecting to the proposed Europe-wide ban. Virginiamycin is added to feed to promotegrowth of chickens, turkeys, pigs and cattle. But it also has similar properties to another antibiotic combination, quinupristin/dalfopriston, which doctors had hoped could be used to treat resistant infections in humans. The antibiotics on the EU list are: bacitracin, Virginiamycin, Spiramycin and Tysolin phosphate.
Fefana, which represents feed manufacturers, said adding antibiotics to animal food "is safe and has contributed significantly to improvements in animal welfare".
Yesterday a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculturesaid Britain will vote "based on the scientific evidence".Scientists, medics and politicians have become increasingly concerned about over-use of antibiotics in the past two years.Reuse content