The vast majority of EU states are opposed to lifting an import ban on US poultry, an official said Monday, less than a week after the European Commission said it would propose scrapping the measure.
Their opposition flies in the face of a drive by EU Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen to introduce a proposal to lift the ban, in place since 1997 over health fears about a chlorine washing process common in the United States.
The issue has been a source of contention in EU-US trade relations and the German commissioner has led efforts to get it lifted, stirring tensions within member states and the European Commission.
Agriculture ministers from 21 of the European Union's 27 countries voiced opposition at a meeting in Brussels to the idea and the other countries did not express a position one way or another, the official said.
France, Europe's biggest poultry producer, has led opposition to scrapping the ban, which French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier described as "a pretty symbolic issue.
"The United States can do what they want at home but European consumers have other demands. They want checks all along the production chain and not a brutal disinfection at the end of the chain," as is done in the United States, he said.
The US food industry uses the chlorine washing process on its poultry to kill off bacteria, including salmonella, before it reaches consumers' plates.
EU veterinary experts favour hygiene controls throughout the hatching and rearing cycle to better ensure that the bacteria does not develop in the first place.
The prospect of lifting the ban was only made possible after a new European Food Safety Authority assessment last month.
It found that the four antimicrobial substances used in the US for cleaning poultry carcasses -- chlorine dioxide, acidified sodium chlorite, trisodium phosphate and peroxyacids -- represented "no safety concern within the proposed conditions of use."
EU Health Commissioner Androula Vassilou said she considered current arrangements to be appropriate, stopping short of saying that she was against lifting the ban.
"In my opinion, what we have in place in Europe at the time being is a very good hygienic process from the farm to the plate ... in which our farmers and producers have put a lot of investment," she said.
While obliged to produce a proposal, Vassilou said that it would be strictly grounded in the available scientific information and that input from member states' experts would be taken into account.