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What Can Danish Hogs Teach Us About Antibiotics?

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Beautiful Denmark is known throughout the world for its pastries, furniture design and ham.

Yes, ham. Denmark is the largest exporter of pork in the world. The country, not much larger than Massachusetts, produces more than 26 million hogs each year--much of it in an industrialized system--selling nearly 90 percent of its pork to nations around the globe. But more important, Denmark is one of the first countries proactively seeking to reduce the growing public health threat of antibiotic resistance by banning the use of antibiotics in healthy food animals, a practice still widespread in the United States.

American agribusiness often has criticized Denmark's 1998 ban on antibiotics, calling it an outright failure. But compelling new research presented by a Danish scientist earlier this year showed the opposite, revealing that antibiotic use on industrial farms has dropped by half while productivity has increased by 47 percent since 1992. Danish swine production has increased from 18.4 million in 1992 to 27.1 million in 2008. A decrease in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food animals and meat has followed the reduced use of these vital drugs. A team representing the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming recently traveled to the Scandinavian country to take a first-hand look at the Danish antibiotics ban.

My colleagues and I from The Pew Charitable Trusts met with Danish researchers who have been monitoring antibiotic use in food animals in their country for the past 15 years. Our Danish hosts included Dr. Jan Mousing, Denmark's chief veterinary officer; Dr. Frank Aarestrup, a veterinarian and professor at the National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark; and Dr. Henrik Wegener, a medical doctor and a leading microbiologist on antibiotic resistance and director of the National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark.

We also met with the Danish Agriculture and Food Council--a powerful lobbying group that represents most of the country's agricultural interests: swine, chickens, beef, dairy cattle and more. And, we spent the better part of a day at an industrial swine farm, with an animated and energetic farmer eager to talk about his work, his pigs and the almost non-existent use of antibiotics on his farm.

All of our meetings confirmed that Denmark's swine industry is successful and growing post-ban. The pork producers and those who represent them are fiercely proud of how they raise their pigs. Contrary to U.S. agribusiness claims about the ban, the average number of pigs produced per sow per year has increased from 21 to 25 (this is an important indicator of swine health and welfare, according to veterinarians). Most important, total antibiotic use has declined by 51 percent since an all-time high in 1992. Plus, the Danish industry group told us that the ban did not increase the cost of meat for the consumer.

Coincidentally, three days after our fact-finding mission ended, another one began--but this time in the form of a delegation of four members of Congress from the U.S. House of Representatives' Agriculture Committee. The world's largest exporter of pork was hosting back-to-back meetings with Americans.

On September 19, a delegation that included House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) met with Danish experts. While pressure from U.S. agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry will be fierce on Congress to continue its stance against the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), this trip should do much to clear up potential misconceptions and demonstrate that we can safely and effectively remove routine overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms. This bill would withdraw the use of seven classes of antibiotics vitally important to human health from industrial animal production unless animals or herds are sick with disease, or unless drug companies can prove that their routine use does not harm human health through antibiotic resistance. This legislation is critically important because these are the drugs we depend on to keep ourselves healthy, but which one day could be ineffective partly because of overuse in food animals.

An estimated 90,000 Americans die each year from infections that are increasingly resilient against the most powerful antibiotics. About 70 percent of those infections are associated with bacterial pathogens that are resistant to at least one drug.

While Denmark stopped the practice of using antibiotics to grow animals fatter faster, the full arsenal of these drugs remains available to veterinarians to prescribe treatment for sick animals and herds. This practice is unlike what occurs here in the United States--where up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold are fed to healthy food animals with no prescription required. The Danes also stipulate that the drugs be sold by a pharmacy, not the prescribing vet. This prudent policy was instituted to limit financial incentives in dispensing antibiotics.

The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases Society of America and many other health groups agree that we are losing many antibiotics due to decades of unnecessary overuse in both human medicine and agriculture. Moreover, very few new antibiotics are in the pipeline for future approvals.

Denmark's ban on the routine use of antibiotics on food animal farms is a success. The United States has an effective model to draw upon when it comes to protecting public health. We can learn from Denmark, swiftly pass the PAMTA legislation and save our antibiotics so that antibiotics can continue to save us.