EU Applies Precautionary Principle to Ban Animal Feed Antibiotics

14 December 1998

An EU ban on the use of four antibiotics used in animal feed moved forward last week as the proposal won approval from ten out of 15 ministers to the European Commission (EC). (See BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest Vol. 2, No. 44, November 16, 1998.) EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler proposed the ban, concerned that use of the antibiotics could build up resistance in human consumers. When the proposal moved to EU farm ministers this week, it passed, with 12 countries voting in favour. The ban, which would go into effect January 1, is controversial because scientists have yet to show any connection between the four antibiotics and increased human resistance to medicines.
Sales of the four antibiotics are worth US$350 million a year to the four manufacturers that produce and market them. The affected manufacturers and opponents of the ban take issue not only with the potential sales revenue lost, but also the premise under which the EU is pushing the ban forward.

The EU is utilising the "precautionary principle" in justifying the ban - a principle used to allow taking preventive measures when scientific evidence is lacking. This principle - which is often cited in international environmental policy - is the same principle France is using to justify its ban on genetically modified seeds and feedstuffs, the source of a trade dispute between the U.S. and France. Critics charge the principle holds up billions of dollars of investments without any real guarantee that the bans improve consumer safety. "The precautionary principle undermines good policy by denying both due process and fair treatment," said an executive with Pfizer Inc., one of the four-affected manufacturers.

Consumer groups argue the precautionary principle is entirely justified. "Consumers will not tolerate a policy process that requires substantial evidence of death and disease before public health action is justified," according to Jim Murray, head of Europe's main consumer lobby, the EEUC.

The ban would not affect imported meat.

"EU to ban four animal feed antibiotics," FINANCIAL TIMES, December 3, 1998; "EU seeks ban on 4 animal feed antibiotics," WALL STREET JOURNAL, December 7, 1998.

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