EU plans to lift restrictions on feeding animal by-products to pigs and chickens have been met with dismay and anger by leading retailers and farming bodies.

All the major retailers attacked the plans to relax the ban and said they would refuse to sell meat from animals fed on meat and bone meal, if the ban was lifted as expected next year. It has been in place since the 1996 BSE outbreak.

"We would never sell anything our customers don't want, and it's clear they don't want MBM-fed meat at present," said a Tesco spokeswoman.

Describing the return to using MBM feed as "a backward step", the NFU urged farmers to consider consumer sensibilities before any return to feeding MBM to farm animals.

"We have to provide consumers with food they feel reassured with," said chief livestock adviser Peter King. "If they don't want it, we don't use it."

However, poultry adviser Maria Ball, was confident that many farmers would ignore the lifting of the ban. "Given the response of the retailers, I don't think this a route individual farmers would go down," she said.

Once the ban has been lifted, it will be impossible for the UK government to outlaw the use of MBM. But groups of farmers could decide not to use it, as a way of differentiating British meat.

"From the NFU perspective, it is premature to consider opting out of using MBM, but from a marketing perspective, there's great advantage to be had from refusing to use MBM," agreed King.

The farm assurance schemes that underpin much of the British meat industry could impose restrictions on MBM, said MLC consumer affairs director Richard Lowe, but he warned: "They'd need to do plenty of consumer research to make sure a ban was something people wanted."

The European Commission is awaiting a scientific risk assessment before lifting the ban. It stressed the need for full traceability in MBM to prevent animals being fed their own kind.