European Union environment ministers rejected an appeal Monday to force Austria to lift a ban on two biotech crop products, which the European Commission says violates international trade rules.
Austria, keen to prevent genetically modified crops from being grown on its territory, had ignored 1999 and 2000 EU decisions approving two biotech maize products made by Bayer CropScience AG and Monsanto Co.
Austria invoked a so-called safeguard clause to prevent the crops from being used.
The European Commission failed to muster enough backing for its third attempt to bring Austria in line. Of the 25 EU nations, only Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and the Czech Republic backed its measure.
The commission argued the EU's food safety agency had concluded there was no risk to health or the environment that would justify blocking the products.
Following its defeat, the commission said it would "carefully consider" what legal moves it could take next. The EU is under pressure from the World Trade Organization to fall into line over its biotech practices.
The WTO ruled in November that EU nations broke trade rules by stopping imports of biotech crops, backing the United States, Canada and Australia, which insist that the bloc has no scientific evidence to justify its cautious position.
Environmental groups welcomed the news, saying the vote was a rejection of the WTO's position.
"This is a major defeat for the biotech industry and their friends," said Helen Holder, from Friends of the Earth Europe.
Greenpeace urged the commission to drop plans to pursue similar legal measures against Hungary and Greece.
The EU has been at pains to ensure a 2004 decision to lift its moratorium on the introduction of new genetically altered crops is adhered to by all member states. The commission lifted the moratorium when it approved a modified strain of sweet corn, grown mainly in the United States.
Many EU nations continue to insist that genetically modified foods pose potential risks to human health and the environment and have been hesitant to embrace newly approved products. Trade rivals argue the Europeans are unfairly restricting their access to the European market, and that decisions on approval of new products are based on political motives rather than scientific proof.