The prospect of a full ban on Brazilian beef imports came a step closer this week, according to the NFU, which says the country is producing meat that would be illegal in this country.

European Commission officials have told the union privately that a full ban would be agreed if an upcoming visit revealed no progress on foot and mouth safeguards or veterinary medicine residues.

But NFU livestock board chairman Thomas Binns said he was concerned Brussels was dragging its feet because of wider WTO concerns, and he urged the EU not to play politics.

"The EU can't guarantee that Brazilian beef is 100% safe, so we are absolutely within our rights to ask for this ban. Fifty-eight other countries have banned it."

He also challenged the Co-operative Group and Somerfield to follow Asda by taking Brazilian beef off the shelves.

The stakes have been raised by a British scientist who claims the government is trying to silence concerns over the safety of growth hormones used to produce beef in countries such as Australia, the US and Brazil.

John Verrall of the Veterinary Products Committtee wants DEFRA to restart testing for residues of sex hormones in imported beef which are banned in the EU.

He has gone over colleagues' heads to oppose the committee's opinion that the hormones are safe, claiming they can provoke abnormal sexual development in children.

Binns was reluctant to raise the alarm until the science had been checked, but he said the time had come to impose a full ban.

"There are so many question marks over South America that Brussels should ban the whole lot until it has dotted the i's and crossed the t's on traceability and standards."

One industry observer said that a ban on Brazilian beef could keep the EU from oversupply when slaughterings rose at the end of the summer. He predicted a further tightening in supplies and pointed out that Tesco had already raised the shelf price of some beef steaks by some £1/kg.