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David Wallinga, M.D.

A war of words has erupted between the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and some leading advocates for reducing unnecessary antibiotics in animal feed, like Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production.

The best public estimates currently say that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy animals, to help them grow faster on less animal feed, and to compensate for the fact that animals  are typically raised under stressful, closely confined conditions that tend to increase their likelihood of getting sick. 

So it's particularly timely to read a new report from the chief government veterinarians in Denmark, where more than 10 years ago—and at the behest of that country's meat producers—they stopped feeding human antibiotics to animals to make them grow faster.

Why is Denmark so important when it comes to antibiotics and animals? Well, it's a leading meat producer and the largest exporter of pork in the world.

So, what happened? More than a decade ago, Danish meat producers looked hard at their own use of antibiotics and realized that not only could it undermine public health, but that their markets for exporting meat products were at risk as well. Specifically, Danish veterinary experts had been warning that continuing the use of these antibiotics could compromise their future effectiveness for treating serious infections in both humans and animals, since they seemed to be helping to create more antibiotic resistant bacteria.

From 1998 to 1999, Danish producers stopped using antibiotics to promote animal growth, first in chickens, then in hogs. Eventually, their entire agricultural use of antibiotics dropped by over half. Among several different kinds of bacteria found in farm animals and on food, drug resistance declined in a major way. This represents a huge improvement to public health.

Other benefits outlined by the report:

  • No worsening in the health of animals. Sick animals get treated with antibiotics, same as always. Healthy animals just don’t get antibiotics in their feed.
  • Productivity of Danish agriculture continues to improve—just with a lot fewer antibiotics.
  • No change in the price of meat for consumers.

Getting rid of routine antibiotics added to animal feed in the U.S. would seem to be the kind of public health win-win that everyone could get behind. Not the AVMA, for some reason. Could it be that the largest producers of animal antibiotics, like Bayer and Pfizer, are major supporters?


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