Europe in Action: Commission seeks ban on milk drug

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A GENETICALLY engineered drug that increases a cow's milk yield should be banned from Europe for at least seven years, according to a recommendation by the European Commission.

The decision sets a vitally important precedent for the acceptance of all biotechnology products in Europe. If it is ratified by the Council of Agriculture Ministers in September, the ban will end commercial prospects for the drug, Bovine Somatotropin (BST), which is the first genetically engineered product other than human drugs to come on to the market.

Decisions on new products have, until now, been limited to a technical assessment of safety, quality and efficacy but the commission has taken broader social and economic factors into account over BST.

The commission has effectively ruled that this new product is not needed, rather than letting market forces decide.

The commission's decision was greeted with dismay by the biotechnology industry. Brian Ager, from the Brussels-based Senior Advisory Group for Biotechnology, said: 'If Europe cannot assimilate new technology like the rest of the world then we will suffer in terms of our fundamental technologies, such as agriculture, the chemical industry and the pharmaceutical industry - that will damage employment prospects throughout the EC. If this sort of uncertainty exists, companies are not going to make the investment in new technologies.'

But environmentalists hailed it as a victory. 'BST is a product nobody wants but the manufacturers,' Steve Emmott, of the British Genetics Forum, said. Fears that its use would drive small dairy farmers bankrupt, favouring only large-scale intensive farms run by big business, lay behind the commission's decision.

The commission also noted that, although many consumers were strongly opposed to the introduction of BST, it was impossible to label items to allow them to choose non- BST milk products.

It also felt that safeguards to protect the health of cows could not be properly enforced or controlled under field conditions.