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BRUSSELS/OTTAWA (Reuters) - The European Union and Canada clashed on Tuesday after EU lawmakers voted to ban imports of seal products into the 27-nation bloc, prompting Ottawa to threaten action in the world's top trade court.
If the ban adopted by the European Parliament does not exempt humane and sustainable sealing, Canada pledged to launch a challenge at the World Trade Organization -- the global trade watchdog.
"If the EU imposes a trade ban on seal products it must contain an exemption for any country, like Canada, that has strict guidelines in place for humane and sustainable sealing practices," Canada's Trade Minister Stockwell Day said.
"If there is no such acceptable exemption, Canada will challenge the ban at the World Trade Organization."
Canada, Greenland and Namibia account for around 60 percent of the 900,000 seals killed each year. The rest are killed in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Britain and the United States.
The animals are usually shot or bludgeoned over the head with a spiked club called a hakapik. Seal products include fur used in clothing and oil used in vitamin supplements.
The European Commission -- which oversees EU trade policy -- said "it is up to Canada to decide whether to take action," but Brussels had worked hard to meet WTO trade rules.
"The EU institutions have looked at WTO issues and carefully listened to partners," EU trade spokesman Lutz Guellner told Reuters.
"There is still work to be carried out on the implementation of the legislation, such as how the exemptions work in practice. The legislation adopted in parliament is non-discriminatory."
The EU and Canada hold a meeting on Wednesday in Prague, but diplomats said the ban, affecting around 4.2 million euros ($5.6 million) of business, would not prevent the launch of talks on a bilateral pact worth at least $27 billion in additional trade.
"Both sides have politely agreed to avoid talking about the ban on Wednesday," an EU diplomat involved in preparing the summit told Reuters.
"This is an irritation at the moment and could evolve into something more in the future. But for now both sides have agreed not to let it prevent the talks from starting."
The 15 seal species now hunted are not endangered but European politicians demanded action after finding what they said was evidence that many animals were skinned while still conscious.
Animal rights activists say the hunt is inhumane, but Canada defended its sealing policy.
"Our government will stand up for the jobs and communities that depend on the seal hunt," said Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, adding a ban would devastate coastal towns who rely on the hunt for 25-35 percent of their annual income.
The decision will become final after a vote by the European Council, which represents all 27 EU member states.
The European Commission had proposed a partial ban coupled with clear labeling of products to show they contain culled seals, but parliament said this was not enough.
There is an exemption for seal products from hunts conducted by the Inuit people in Canada, or by other indigenous communities. But the products must be for personal use and brought into the EU on a non-commercial basis.
The ban covers all so-called pinnipeds, which include walruses and sea lions. It takes effect within weeks and EU states must impose effective penalties for breaches.
Additional reporting by Huw Jones in Strasbourg and Pete Harrison in Brussels; Editing by Rob Wilson and Sophie Hares