25 December 1998

Trade war looms as EU bans growth antibiotics

By Philip Clarke

THE EU faces a possible trade war with the US and other pigmeat exporters after its decision to ban four key antibiotics used as animal growth promoters.

Farm ministers meeting in Brussels last week voted to outlaw the four products – virginiamycin, tylosin, zinc bacitracin and spiramycin – with drug firms given until June 30, 1999 to clear the market.

Even though scientific evidence on the implications of the drugs for antibiotic resistance in humans is still outstanding, ministers took the decision as a way of managing risk.

But the ban cannot be applied to imports. As such, farm ministers have asked the EU Commission to investigate the trade implications and report back within six months.

"I can see this going the same way as the hormones ban with the US," said Jacob Hansen, director of the Danish Council of Agriculture in Brussels. "It is ridiculous to say it is not okay for consumers to eat pigs reared in the EU with the use of antibiotics, but it is okay for them to eat imports."

Should a follow-up rule emerge to ban imports as well, the US would demand scientific justification. "It seems to me the antibiotic ban is not scientifically based," said agricultural attache at the US Mission in Brussels, Mary Ellen Smith.

A ban would have serious implications for US pork and poultry exports, which are routinely fed antibiotics, and would be challenged through the World Trade Organisation, she said. It could also affect US beef exports. "The EU ban on beef reared with hormones should be lifted in May. If that happens, our fear is that we could then be shut out on the basis of antibiotics."

Closer to home, the more immediate effect of the antibiotics ban on UK pig producers will be reduced feed conversion efficiency, higher piglet mortality and lower gross margins.

According to research by the Meat and Livestock Commission, incorporating antibiotics in animal feed boosts conversion efficiency by 2.5%, while piglet mortality falls. This benefit is put at about £15m to the whole UK industry. &#42