Austria's health ministry says it has found evidence that some of the
country's farmers may have been giving drugs to their pigs illegally.

The ministry's spokesman Gerald Grosz told Reuters that of the 56 analyses carried out to date on urine samples taken from pig farms suspected of the practice, 18 were positive for antibiotics and 38 were negative.

The use of antibiotics is not illegal in Austria, but certain prescriptions and methods of administering the drugs are banned. The suspicion of illegal use was yet to be confirmed.

"A third of the tests we've so far carried out have proven positive. Testing is still underway," Grosz says. Three positive tests were found in Lower Austria and 15 in Styria.

The testing comes after 65 farms were reported to authorities and 17 placed under quarantine on suspicion that animals have been given banned hormones, antibiotics and vaccinations.

Consumer confidence in the Alpine country, which prides itself on its high veterinary standards has taken a severe blow, particularly as it comes amid the madcow crisis.

Germany's Der Spiegel news magazine alleged that illegal substances for pigs had been smuggled into Austria from the German state of Bavaria.

Agriculture Minister Wilhelm Molterer, keen to quell criticism he had done too little too late, has said offending dealers, vets and farmers would be dealt with severely.

Some scientists believe consumption of pork that has been treated with banned substances poses a greater risk to human health than eating beef from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, of which Austria remains free.

Reuters