Ministers stung into action to stop animal testing

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The Government is about to make an important concession on the testing of cosmetics on animals. Jason Bennetto explains that although the move is a breakthrough it will only affect a tiny number of experiments.

The use of animals to test cosmetic products is to end in Britain, after a dramatic change of heart by the Government.

The initiative, which will be announced later today, comes two weeks after The Independent revealed that Labour had reneged on its election promise to ban experiments on animals to test new cosmetics. The disclosure caused uproar among animal rights supporters.

It is understood that Home Office officials have approached the five companies who have been granted licences for research on beauty and skin products and obtained an agreement not to carry out further animal experiments on finished goods. The voluntary ban will come into effect immediately and the firms are understood to have agreed to return their licences to the Home Office and have them altered.

Some animal experiments, however, will continue to be carried out on ingredients for cosmetics, because some of those used in beauty products are also found in pharmaceuticals. The Home Office, it is believed, are to press manufacturers and the Animal Procedures Committee, an advisory group, to produce a list of ingredients that are only used in cosmetics and then ban their use on animals. It is unclear how many ingredients would come under the new ban.

About 2,800 animals were used last year to test cosmetics, mostly rabbits, guinea pigs, and rats. The vast bulk of animals - 2.7 million last year - are used for medical research and testing pharmaceuticals. The vast bulk of the cosmetics tests were on ingredients, rather than the final product.

Among the tests were experiments to discover whether ingredients and cosmetic products had an adverse effect on animal's skin, eyes, ears, mouths, and reproductive organs.

The move follows a public and political outcry at the disclosure that the Government had broken promises made by Tony Blair in an official Labour Party document during the General Election that cosmetic testing was to be outlawed.

It also emerged that Home Office funding to develop alternatives to using live animals for experiments was cut this year by a quarter to pounds 182,000. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said there appears to be "no realistic prospect in the foreseeable future" of an end to animal experiments.

The announcements provoked angry responses from a range of animal rights campaigners including the RSPCA and Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop.

Even Professor Colin Blakemore, head of Physiology at Oxford University and one of the most outspoken supporters of the benefits of animal research, told The Independent, that killing animals to test new beauty products is indefensible. He said there were already enough safe ingredients for beauty products.

The Government appears to have been stung by the recent criticism and has taken swift action. Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Home Office minister responsible for animals, is expected to outline the new approach to cosmetic testing later today.

Jan Creamer, director of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, said last night: "We are happy to see the Government take some action ... but ... they have not got to the heart of the problem ... The balance of power must be changed."