BILLUND, Denmark – As use of antibiotics in livestock has soared globally, Denmark — which ranks among the world’s top pork exporters — has proved that a country can build a thriving industry while cutting back on antibiotic use in pigs.
U.S. pork farmers, too, have been curtailing their use of antiobiotics, but still them at a rate seven times higher than that of Danish farmers, said a 2018 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The overuse in both humans and livestock is giving dangerous germs more opportunities to evolve and outsmart drugs designed to kill them. Drug-resistant infections kill 700,000 people a year around the world, including 35,000 in the U.S.
U.S. pork industry officials say antibiotics are essential for keeping animals healthy and food costs low. But Denmark has shown that it is possible to create an enormous meat-based food supply while preserving the most precious antibiotics for people.
“By changing the way farmers raise their animals, Denmark has shown that you can substantially reduce antimicrobial use in pig production and that it can be done without any long-term impact on productivity,” said Lucie Collineau, a French veterinarian.
The changes were achieved through tougher regulations. But it also occurred voluntarily as farmers learned to raise animals in ways that kept them healthier. That has included providing pigs with more space, improving ventilation and hygiene in sheds, and reducing the stress that can make them more susceptible to infection.
U.S. pork industry officials said adopting their practices would increase pork prices. Some claimed that Denmark’s sick pigs go untreated or that farmers must use more antibiotics — claims Denmark disputes.
Dr. Heather Fowler, director of producer and public health at the National Pork Board, a trade group financed by pork producers, said Denmark’s efforts hasn’t had any measurable effect on public health nor has it led to a reduction in disease prevalence among animals. She said the board was focused on voluntary antimicrobial stewardship — “using the right drug for the right bug.”
Many public health experts don’t buy it. “The American pork industry’s arguments are spurious and downright embarrassing,” said Dr. Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University.
The Danish experience suggests that it is possible to have both healthy pigs and far lower use of antibiotics. “Most of us have kids,” said pig farmer Soren Sondergaard, 40, whose family has been farming for generations. “We want to make sure we leave them a world where antibiotics still work.”
Denmark raises 32 million pigs per year but is home to just 6 million people. Pork is central to Danish cuisine — the national dish, stegt flaesk, is crispy pork belly.
So there was plenty of pushback in 1995 when the government, worried about the rise of drug-resistant infections, barred veterinarians from selling antimicrobial drugs directly to farmers, removing any incentive for unnecessary prescriptions.
Veterinarians were not happy, but the regulations also required farmers to pay veterinarians for regular visits, said Ken Steen Pedersen of the Danish Veterinary Association. “Vets came to realize they could make their money from selling knowledge and advice to farmers rather than selling medicine,” he said.
In the years that followed, authorities phased out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, introduced higher taxes on medically important antibiotics and largely banned the use in pigs of some of the most essential drugs for humans.
The progress has been painstakingly documented in an annual compendium, called Danmap, that has become the gold standard for researchers across the world seeking to understand the connection between antibiotic use and resistant germs.
One of the earliest findings showed that a 1995 ban on the antibiotic avoparcin in livestock led to the virtual disappearance of avoparcin-resistant bacteria in chickens.
“For us, it’s all about data, data, data,” said Johanne Ellis-Iversen, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Danish National Food Institute.
The U.S. does not collect farm-by-farm data on antibiotic use. Scientists say they have generally been barred from research on farms.
Not so in Denmark. “Danish farmers are proud of their work and don’t feel they have anything to hide,” said Anders Rhod Larsen, a microbiologist at the government-funded Statens Serum Institute. “There is also a shared sense of responsibility, that we have to solve this problem together.”