Britain, which opposed the original decision to ban hormones in 1989, stood alone in demanding that farmers should be free to use growth-promoting substances which pose no risk to human health. Tony Baldry, Agriculture Minister of State, urged colleagues to heed the findings of a panel of independent scientists which concluded last month that derivatives of five natural hormones were safe if used under prescribed conditions.
Britain also warned that tightening the hormone ban at this stage would sour the long dispute with the US, which permits hormones and whose beef exports are excluded by the EU ban.
Washington has lodged a complaint with the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation and the sides are due to hold conciliation talks later this month. "This accord clearly will not help. It is inopportune" said a senior British official.
US producers say that thanks to the ban they lose $100m (pounds 66m) a year in exports. But the overwhelming view of EU ministers yesterday was that relaxation at this stage would unleash a consumer backlash, triggering a potential beef-market collapse. The incidence of BSE or "mad-cow disease", particularly in Britain, has led to a big decline in consumption; legalising hormones would provoke a further drop of up to 30 per cent, according to European Commission studies.
The Irish Agriculture Minister, Ivan Yates, whose country's economy is more dependent on beef than any other EU member, reflected the general mood. "We are determined to resist US pressure to do anything which would undermine consumer confidence in red meat."
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