MPs have jeered a minister who suggested banning wild animals in circuses could breach human rights law.
To howls of laughter, Jim Paice said legal advice suggested a total ban "might well be seen as disproportionate action" under the Human Rights Act.
He said to have pursued a total ban would have been irresponsible.
But Labour's Mary Creagh said the department was being "pathetic" and accused ministers of "hiding behind human rights legislation".
Last week, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced there would be no ban on the use of wild animals in circuses but promised to enforce "high welfare standards".
She suggested a ban would be unworkable because of a court case in Austria.
Junior minister Mr Paice told MPs on Thursday he wanted to "clarify the confusion". He said the case against the Austrian government had been delayed - although proceedings were expected to start soon.
But he said his clarification did not change the government's legal position on any ban.
To laughter from MPs, Mr Paice said: "The very strong legal advice which we have received, and which is consistent with the case being prepared against Austria, is that a total ban on wild animals in circuses might well be seen as disproportionate action under the European Union Services Directive and under our own Human Rights Act.
"To have pursued a ban in light of that legal advice we believe would have been irresponsible."
But shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said the secretary of state had told MPs that the Austrian government "have been taken to court by a German circus company". However, the statement confirmed "no legal challenge exists".
She said of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it was another "all-singing disaster from the worst-performing department in government".
Could you have a bit of spine?”
Caroline Lucas MP
Ms Creagh challenged the government to place the legal advice it had received in the Commons library so it could be scrutinised by MPs.
"On the legal cases that don't exist and hiding behind human rights legislation, it is this department which is pathetic," she said.
She urged Mr Paice to "stop hiding behind some circus owners, who may at some point in the future, after six years of failed national and European legal challenges, be bringing another case".
"That is no reason not to ban wild animals in British circuses."
But Mr Paice said the written statement issued on Friday had been "perfectly accurate at that time" adding: "It now transpires newspaper reports were incorrect."
In a move which stops short of a ban, government-approved vets will oversee a new licensing scheme designed to prevent cruelty and mistreatment.
Green MP Caroline Lucas called it a "cowardly" position, citing previous examples of animal welfare issues where the government had gone ahead, despite legal advice.
"Could you have a bit of spine?" she told Mr Paice.
In 2009, the year for which the latest figures are available, there were an estimated 39 wild animals being used in circuses in the UK, including elephants, tigers, lions, camels, zebras and crocodiles.
There was a public outcry earlier this year when footage emerged of a 59-year-old circus elephant called Anne (Picture) being beaten with a pitchfork in Northamptonshire.
She has since been taken to Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire.