EU trade and agriculture officials and their US counterparts had been exploring ways of compensating American cattle exporters for lost sales caused by the Union’s ban on hormone-treated beef by building up trade in hormone-free beef. But the vets’ refusal to give US beef a clean bill of health has scuppered hopes of a deal before February.This week’s discussions on American food-safety controls followed a visit by EU veterinary inspectors to the US in October which found that Washington’s testing procedures for residues of growth- promoting hormones and other harmful substances were inadequate. A Commission spokeswoman said this week that the US had reassured the Union that it was making every effort to improve testing methods.Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne welcomed the “firm engagement of the US authorities to solve these issues”, adding that he hoped the next visit by EU veterinary inspectors in January would confirm that the US was meeting its commitments.The Union first threatened to impose a ban on imports of red meat from the US last June after checks on random samples of American meatsupposed to be hormone-free revealed traces of banned substances in 12% of the batches tested.The vets’ decision not to carry out that threat despite the inspectors’ findings – which could have prompted swift retaliatory action by the Clinton administration – will improve the atmosphere at next week’s EU-US summit in Washington. National animal health officials decided this week to give the US authorities until next February to improve testing procedures for beef, pork and horsemeat. The committee considered imposing a ban on all imports of these products from 15 December, but decided instead to extend the deadline for two months to give the US time to step up its monitoring of growth-promoting hormones and other potentially harmful substances.Although officials stopped short of introducing a total embargo, the delay before Washington will be allowed to resume sales of hormone-free beef means that the EU stands no chance of persuading the US to drop sanctions on 117 million euro of Union exports before next year.A World Trade Organisation panel ruled earlier this year that the EU did not have sufficient scientific evidence that eating hormone-treated beef posed a risk to health to justify a ban on imports of US beef. The Union has commissioned new scientific studies into the possible health threats from growth-hormones, but the results are not expected until next summer. Leaders from the two blocs are planning to use the meeting to emphasise the strength of the transatlantic partnership over issues such as the future of the Balkans and the continuing Russian military campaign in Chechnya. They will be relieved that their talks will not now be overshadowed by the prospect of an escalating trade war.