The editors of Scientific American recently encouraged U.S. hog farmers to “follow Denmark and stop giving farm animals low-dose antibiotics.” Sixteen years ago, in order to reduce the threat of increased development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in their food system and the environment, Denmark phased in an antibiotic growth promotant ban in food animal production. Guess what? According to Denmark’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries the ban is working and the industry has continued to thrive. The government agency found that Danish livestock and poultry farmers used 37% less antibiotics in 2009 than in 1994, leading to overall reductions of antimicrobial resistance countrywide.
Courtesy: Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, July, 2010
Except for a few early hiccups regarding the methods used in weaning piglets, production levels of livestock and poultry have either stayed the same or increased. So how did Danish producers make this transition, and why isn’t the U.S. jumping to follow suit? Like many things in industrial agriculture, the answer is not clear.
If any country knows how to intensively produce food animals, particularly pigs, it is Denmark. In 2008, farmers produced about 27 million hogs. In fact, the Scandinavian country claims to be the world’s largest exporter of pork. Thus Scientific American editors argue that the Danish pork production system should serve as a suitable model to compare to ours. U.S. agriculture economists from Iowa State University agree. In a 2003 report, Drs. Helen Jensen and Dermot Hayes stated that Denmark’s pork industry is “…at least as sophisticated as that of the United States… and is therefore a suitable market for evaluating a ban on antibiotic growth promotants (AGPs).” Read More >
I hope every lawmaker on Capitol Hill had a chance to watch CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric’s two-part investigative series on the risks of using antibiotics as growth promoters in food animals. After viewing both pieces it would be difficult for most people to question the immediate need to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA). PAMTA would effectively end the practice of administering constant low doses of antibiotics important to human health in food animals in the hopes of reducing the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases among the general public. As we mentioned Tuesday, the first installment of the series highlighted the connections between industrial food animal production and the growing number of antibiotic resistant infections across the country.Couric’s second installment dismantled several arguments which critics of PAMTA often use to dissuade passage. I’ll point out just two.
First, the report puts to rest the deceptive claims by PAMTA opponents who point to outdated data from Denmark that they say proves an antibiotic-ban in the U.S. would hurt farmers. Opponents allude that the Danish ban on non-therapeutic antibiotics in food animals was a failure, claiming the numbers show the ban increased the mortality of piglets and required the increase of therapeutic antibiotic usage to treat sick pigs. Couric’s second report opened in Denmark, focusing on the “Danish Experience.” Farmers and researchers there tell a much different story. Couric interviewed Danish hog farmer Soren Helmer, who said, “We thought we could not produce pigs as efficient as we did before. But that was proven wrong.” Couric reported, “since the ban the Danish pork industry has grown by 43 percent making it one of the top exporters in the world.”
As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, Danish scientists, from the National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark, Drs. Frank Møller Aarestrup and Henrik Wegener, submitted last July written testimony for a U.S. House Committees Rules hearing on PAMTA. They wrote, “As you may be aware, representatives of organizations funded by U.S. agri-business have criticized and mis-represented the facts on the Danish ban of antibiotics since its inception.” The scientists found that the total antibiotic use for pork decreased by 50% and that piglet deaths initially increased, but after improving animal living conditions those numbers have since dipped below pre-ban numbers. Read More >
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof hit on antibiotic resistance today in his opinion column. Kristof reports traveling to the small town of Camden, Indiana, where a recently deceased doctor uncovered a frightening number of residents with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Turns out that the small Indiana town is surrounded by a large number of industrial hog farms. Kristof points to the 2004 dutch study which showed pigs could infect people with MRSA, and mentions the recent study from the University of Iowa that found 45 percent of pig farmers examined carried MRSA. Kristof concludes, “so what’s going on here, and where do these antibiotic-resistant infections come from? Probably from the routine use — make that the insane overuse — of antibiotics in livestock feed.” He promises another column in Sunday’s Times that will focus more on the issue.