Monday, December 14, 1998 Published at 19:00 GMT
Europe bans farm antibiotics
Antibiotics are used in animal feed to fatten livestock up for sale
Four antibiotics widely used in animal feed as growth promoters have been banned across Europe - in a move that could cost the pharmaceutical industry millions of pounds a year.
Mr Brown said the decision was necessary on consumer health grounds.
No-one voted against the move - Denmark and Sweden already ban the targeted drugs - but Belgium, Spain and Portugal abstained. That left a comfortable qualified majority decision for a ban which will be phased in over six months.
In Britain, the four antibiotics - Tysolin Phosphate, Bacitracin Zinc, Spiramycin and Virginiamycin - will be definitively banned by 1 July, 1999.
Mr Brown said he welcomed the decision, but a backlash is now possible from farmers who benefit from the growth-promoting properties of the drugs which are fed to pigs and poultry to fatten them up for sale.
The same drugs are used in humans to counter illness, but it is now claimed that consumers absorbing the drugs through white meat will be more resistant to their bacteria-killing effects when taken directly.
The main manufacturers of the animal antibiotics, were said to be contemplating a legal challenge to the ban.
Mr Brown said: "If there is legal action it will be in the European Court of Justice and Europe stands ready to defend its decision."
Asked about claims from the pharmaceutical industry that there is no scientific justification for the ban, Mr Brown insisted: "The scientific advice that I have received is that the Commission case is sustainable."
Further bans possible
Four other antibiotics similarly used in animal feed in Europe are now being examined by EU experts and may also be recommended for a ban, officials said.
Fifteen other antibiotics have already been banned in the EU for similar reasons.
Concerns remain that imported meat is still coming into Europe from animals reared using the same drugs. Mr Brown said it was a difficult trade issue and was now being studied by the Commission.
Farmers were disappointed at the European decision, claiming that it could give an unfair advantage to farmers who use the growth promoting chemicals in livestock outside Europe.
The National Farmers Union said on Monday that it had been working with other food and agriculture organisations to produce a viable strategy for the withdrawal of the drugs in animal feed and had been hoping that their report could be finished before the European vote was taken.
Animal welfare concerns
An NFU spokesman said: "It cannot be denied that antibiotics have brought enormous benefits for animal health and welfare for many decades. We are concerned that this ban will pose serious welfare problems."
The NFU explained that because of the withdrawal of the antibiotics taking place over just six months they were concerned about the effects on animals which had been fed on products containing the drugs.
The NFU said it was unaware of any scientific justification for the ban but did not oppose it on those grounds.
Instead it had wanted the drugs phased out over a longer period to ensure that animal welfare standards were maintained and the livelihoods of feed manufacturers maintained.
However the ban was welcomed by the Consumers' Association because of "the need to tackle the growing problem of bacterial antibiotic resistance."
A spokesman added that the association was pleased that Mr Brown had adopted the "precautionary principle" in a matter that had implications for consumer safety.