Constant readers, I hope you watched the second day of CBS News’ series on antibiotic use in farming, and how it promotes the emergence of antibiotic-resistant infections in animal and humans. I found it surprisingly hard-hitting. Here’s the video and the text version.
Most of the report explored the farm experience in Denmark, which in 1998 banned its farmers from using small doses of antibiotics to make animals gain weight faster — the practice that’s various called subtherapeutic dosing or growth promotion. Important distinction: The country still permits sick animals to be treated with antibiotics; the ban extends only to giving drugs to animals who are not sick.
That ban has often been represented as a failure for Danish farming [NB: See the update below], but research on the results shows that it was actually a success. Here’s an article by Laura Rogers of the Pew Charitable Trusts explaining what happened in Denmark from her own on-the-ground reporting:
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. …
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.
There are multiple scientific papers done by Danish authors backing up her observations. Here are just a few from just last year:
- Antibiotic-resistant organisms in chickens raised in Denmark declined since the ban — but they remain high in chicken meat imported from other countries that do not have such bans, and passed to Danish consumers who ate that imported meat. (Skjot-Rasmussen et al., May 2009)
- Antibiotic resistance in E. coli in pigs increases when pigs are given antibiotics, and those antibiotic-resistant organisms pass to humans (Hammerum et al., April 2009)
- Antibiotic-resistant organisms found in pigs when they are slaughtered increase when pigs receive more antibiotics (Abatih et al., March 2009)
The industry that supports industrial-sized farms has strongly objected to the CBS series. You can see one detailed response here, from Pork Magazine. The Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy predicts that this is likely just the first wave, and that opposition to any change in agricultural practices will grow stronger as a bill to curb unnecessary antibiotic use gains traction in Congress.
And — you knew I had to do this — here comes the obligatory self-promotion: There is a primer on antibiotic use in farming, and an account of the emergence of MRSA ST398 as a result of antibiotic use in pigs, in SUPERBUG. Which is now 41 days away from publication. And is available for pre-order at a discount! But you knew that.)
UPDATE: FairFoodFight has a great post and a long comments conversation about the CBS series, ag antibiotic use, and particularly the World Health Organizaton research that originally made people doubt the “Danish experiment,” The WHO report is here and a Pew analysis of it is here.