A long-awaited ban on the sale of all cosmetics tested on animals has been shelved because of fears that it would spark a damaging trade war with the United States.
The European Commission has backed down on the ban, due to take effect on 1 July, leaving politicians and animal welfare groups furious at what they describe as Brussels' kow-towing to pressure from big business. With Europe using and kill- ing 38,000 animals in tests every year, campaigners say that hundreds of thousands of rabbits, mice, rats and guinea pigs will die as a result.
The sales ban was first agreed by the Parliament eight years ago, but has suffered constant derailment following intense pressure from the cosmetics industry. Now, just when it seemed legislation would finally be introduced, the Commission has smothered it by behind-the-scenes manoeuvring. Animal testing for cosmetic ingredients is unlikely to be banned until 2006 at the earliest.
Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop and a prominent animal welfare campaigner, said: "I am desperately disappointed by the Commission's decision. They are guaranteeing that hundreds of animals will continue to be used in unnecessary cosmetic tests."
Mark Watts, Labour MEP and party spokesman on animal welfare, said: "We are willing to take on the Americans on a range of issues from bananas to hormones in beef, but when it comes to animal welfare we lack the courage of our convictions and abandon our proposals at the first hurdle and run for cover."
Britain has banned testing cosmetics and their ingredients on animals since 1998, but - contrary to what many consumers think - most cosmetics sold here are manufactured abroad and therefore subject to animal tests. Only Holland and Austria have similar bans to the UK.
Most European testing is done in France and Italy. Industry secrecy means that animal welfare groups have difficulty identifying specific products that have been animal tested. But large companies known to test on animals are Procter & Gamble (whose brands include Max Factor, Mary Quant, Head & Shoulders shampoo and Fairy soap), L'OrÃ©al (its own brands, plus Helena Rubenstein, LancÃ¿me and Laboratoires Garnier), Unilever (Rimmel, Timotei), and Colgate-Palmolive.
The cosmetics U-turn was made late on Wednesday by EU Commissioner Erkki Liikanen who bypassed the European Parliament, pushing through a weakened proposal which has been described by critics as "meaningless" and "half-baked". In a brief statement the Commission said: "In its current wording, the Cosmetics Directive ... would appear to raise certain difficulties in relation to the WTO ... the Commission therefore proposes to modify the ban to ensure its WTO-compatibility and to make it legally and practically enforceable."
The original directive would have banned the sale of all cosmetics, manufactured anywhere in the world, that contained ingredients tested on animals. Instead, the Commission is proposing an amendment to the directive, which it hopes to adopt on 5 May, which calls for the banning of all cosmetic products tested on animals in the EU.
The amendment was described by Mr Watts as "half-baked", allowing multinational cosmetics companies, most of whom operate out of France and Italy, to move their laboratories outside of EU borders and then reimport their products. "A testing ban in Europe will serve only to export animal testing to other countries," said Marlou Heinen, of the RSPCA's international department. "It is appalling that the European Commission proposes to reverse one of the best pieces of animal protection legislation."
But Caroline Jackson, Conservative MEP and influential chair of the EU's consumer protection and environment committee, said: "The last thing the EU wants right now is another war, this time fought over cosmetics." The Commission has just emerged from a costly and unsuccessful attempt to protect Caribbean bananas from US-backed competition.
Two of the biggest companies - Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive - have headquarters in America and would not be greatly affected by an EU testing ban.
There are about 8,000 safe ingredients available for use in cosmetics such as moisturisers and shampoos. The RSPCA blames multinationals' drive to put more new products on the market for the continued use of animals for testing purposes.