By Sally Schuff
Denmark's ban on antibiotics for growth promotion in livestock production may not be quite the doomsday scenario that is often touted in U.S. livestock circles.
Per Henriksen, a veterinarian who heads the Danish Veterinary & Food Administration's division for chemical food safety, animal welfare and veterinary medicinal products, testified in congressional subcommittee hearings this summer that Denmark-produced meats have a markedly lower level of resistant bacteria in meat than imported meat from other European Union member states.
"The Danish swine industry has been producing pigs without the use of growth promoters for many years now and has increased both the production and the productivity," Henriksen testified. "The same picture applies in the broiler chicken and cattle industries."
He said the percentage of cephalosporin-resistant Escherichia coli isolated from Danish broiler meat is less than 5%. Broiler meat from other EU member states was found to have cephalosporin resistance of more than 35% of E. coli.
"This marked difference in resistance can be ascribed to our ban of growth promoters and low usage of antimicrobials compared to other EU countries," Henriksen said.
"Because antimicrobial resistance can be transferred between bacteria, regardless of whether the bacteria are pathogenic or not, the development of antimicrobial resistance in any kind of bacteria can constitute a problem," he pointed out.
Denmark banned the prophylactic use of antimicrobials in 1994-95. In the intervening years, pig production in the country has increased 25%, an infrequently noted trend.
As part of the ban, veterinarians' profits from "direct sales of medicine were fixated at a very low level with a maximum of 10%," according to a fact sheet Henriksen provided to the subcommittee.
In the wake of the ban, Denmark embarked on voluntary strategies that included regular monthly herd visits by veterinarians to promote disease prevention strategies, according to the document.
Not more sickness?
Many in the U.S. point to an increase in the total amount of antibiotics used for therapeutic treatment of sick animals in Denmark since 1995 as evidence that the ban has failed to reduce animal disease.
Henriksen said the increased use of therapeutic antibiotics from 1998 to 2008 was the result of an increase in pig production in the years following the ban and said the actual dosage of antibiotics per kilogram of pig had dropped by about 50%.
He told the subcommittee before the ban in 1994 the total use of antibiotic growth promoters and for therapeutics were 99 mg/kg of pig produced. By 2008 total consumption was 49 mg/kg of pig produced.
He said Danish data showed no "significant impacts on mortality, neither in weaners nor in finishers," as a result of the ban, and the number of pigs weaned per sow increased from 20 to more than 22.Not all farms fared equally successfully after the ban.
Henriksen noted that while nationwide production increased during the phase-out of growth promoters on some farms there were disease problems, which he said is the task for a trained veterinarian.
He said that could mean changes such as a new vaccination schedule, changes in the animals' environment, new ventilation systems or better feed quality.
The subcommittee noted that Denmark's ban on sub-therapeutic antibiotic use seems to have changed the structure of livestock operations in the country, with large, intensively managed operations replacing small farms.
In recent years, especially 2009, Denmark has seen an upward trend in the therapeutic use of antibiotics that cannot be explained by increasing animal numbers.
"However, as this increase appears more than 10 years after the ban of growth promoters, we do not relate this to the ban," Henriksen testified.
The increase is being addressed by Denmark's new "yellow-card" initiative, which singles out farms using antibiotics above a set threshold and mandates a reduction in use. Denmark has elaborate data collection on animals and veterinary issues.
Farm by farm
"We can identify every herd, farmer and veterinarian, and we are able to pinpoint the antimicrobial usage right down to the individual cow and to an age group of swine," Henriksen testified.
Denmark also has monitored and researched antimicrobial resistance for 15 years in the country's well-known DANMAP program.
Relying on growth-promoting antibiotics to prevent illness and treat sick animals has been replaced with good management, including new management practices such as extending pig weaning from 21 to 28 days, he noted.
In concluding remarks to the subcommittee, Henriksen reported that in Demark, "total antibiotic consumption in food-producing animals has been reduced by almost 40% from the mid-1990s to today; animal health has not been compromised."
Schuff covers Washington, D.C., for Feedstuffs weekly newspaper.