By: Bary Eastabrook
PRESIDENT OBAMA didn’t need to issue a $1.2 billion National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, which he did last week, to figure out how the United States could reduce the antibiotic-resistant bacteria created by the country’s agriculture industry. He could have simply spent a day with Kaj Munck, a Danish hog farmer.
Mr. Munck is a husky, loquacious man who lives about an hour south of Copenhagen. His operation looks and smells a lot like the factory pig farms I have visited in the American Midwest. The 12,000 pigs he raises each year — making his operation larger than the average American producer — live in cramped stalls with hard floors inside low-slung warehouselike structures. Mr. Munck can produce pork at prices low enough to compete in the same international markets as American pork. In fact, a large number of the popular baby back ribs served in the United States are imported from Danish farms like his.
But there is one big difference between Danish hog farms and those in the United States that does meet the eye (or nose). Since 2000, Danish farmers have raised pigs without relying on regular doses of antibiotics — while in the United States, perfectly healthy pigs and other livestock are frequently given low levels of antibiotics in their food or water to prevent disease, a practice that also enhances their growth.
Such regular doses of antibiotics contribute to the development of drug-resistant “superbugs,” of the type that kill 23,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One goal of the National Action Plan is to “eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food producing animals and bring other in-feed uses of antibiotics, for treatment and disease control and prevention of disease, under veterinary oversight” by 2020.
But even if the goal is met, American livestock farmers will still face far less stringent antibiotics regulations than their Danish counterparts already follow.
Leading me inside his barn, Mr. Munck unlocked a medicine cabinet that contained a dozen or so bottles of antibiotics. He said that he usually administered antibiotics to sick animals individually, but he could add medication to feed if an entire pen became infected. He told me that he could get the antibiotics only when they were prescribed by a veterinarian, and that he had to purchase them from a pharmacy.
Danish veterinarians cannot dispense antibiotics except in emergencies, removing any financial incentives to overprescribe. The pharmacy that Mr. Munck buys his drugs from enters information about his purchases into a national database that allows the government to track exactly how much of which antibiotics each vet prescribes and each farmer uses. And any antibiotics Mr. Munck acquires have to be administered or destroyed within 35 days.
Once a year, Danish veterinarians meet with government officials to discuss whether or not the amount of antibiotics they recommend is appropriate. Similarly, a farmer using unusually high amounts of drugs gets an official warning from the government and has nine months to bring his use back to acceptable levels, under the guidance of a veterinarian. Failure can result in the farmer’s being forced to reduce his herd size, and in extreme cases stop raising pigs.
Mr. Munck told me that he and other pig farmers in Denmark had no trouble with these regulations, and even supported them. “We saw a potential problem with antibiotic resistance and wanted to get ahead of the game,” he said.
The Danish pork industry did have some early problems with mortality among young pigs. But it overcame those by allowing piglets to nurse longer, by feeding them more nourishing rations and by receiving monthly preventive visits to farms by vets. Overall use of antibiotics in livestock has fallen by 50 percent in Denmark, even as the hog herd has increased significantly in size. Levels of resistant bacteria on farms tumbled. Mr. Munck said his animals experienced no more bacterial infections than they used to. And despite predictions to the contrary, pigs in Denmark gain weight as efficiently as they did before the introduction of the antibiotic controls.
Farmers still use antibiotics frequently, mostly to cure diarrhea and treat infected wounds, Mr. Munck said. But that’s the purpose of antibiotics. “The idea is to use as little antibiotic as possible but as much as needed,” he said.
Researchers at Iowa State University ran numbers to determine what it would cost American pork producers to put a Danish-style control system in place. The total was only $4.50 per animal, less than three cents more for a pound of pork — a pittance if it means keeping antibiotics that save human lives effective.
Originally Published: New York Times