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Antibiotics for Growth Promotion: Denmark’s Post-Ban Story

August 3, 2010

[Source: Feedstuffs]

Pig production in Denmark has increased, official says animal health hasn’t suffered, and antibiotic resistance rates lower than in other EU countries.

DENMARK’S experience with livestock production since the country’s 1995 ban on antibiotics for growth promotion may not be quite the doomsday scenario that is often touted in U.S. livestock circles — at least not according to a top Danish government veterinary official who testified before a congressional subcommittee investigating the growing public health threat of antibiotic resistance.

Dr. Per Henriksen, a veterinarian who heads the Danish Veterinary & Food Administration’s division for chemical food safety, animal welfare and veterinary medicinal products, testified at a key July 12 hearing on antibiotic use in food animals at the invitation of the House energy and commerce subcommittee on health. It was the third hearing the subcommittee held since the spring on the risks and policy options for dealing with antibiotic resistance.

“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.”

In addition, he told the subcommittee, “Denmark has a markedly lower level of resistant bacteria in meat compared to imported meat from other (European Union) member states.”

For example, he reported that the percentage of cephalosporin-resistant Escherichia coli isolated from Danish broiler meat is less than 5%, but more than 35% of E. coli isolated from broiler meat from other EU member states was found to have cephalosporin resistance.

“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 (Figure).

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.

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 testified that 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 that “before the ban in 1994, the total use of antibiotic growth promoters and for therapeutics were 99 mg/kg of pig produced,” but by 2008, “total consumption was 49 mg/kg of pig produced. That is a 50% reduction.”

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, “you see several disease problems, and this is the task for a trained veterinarian to deal with.”

He said that could mean changes such as a new vaccination schedule, changes in the animals’ environment, new ventilation systems or better feed quality.

It was noted at the subcommittee hearing that Denmark’s ban on subtherapeutic antibiotic use had 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.

“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.”

Henriksen’s written testimony and five fact sheets are online at

A transcript of the July 12 House subcommittee hearing is available at by clicking on “Hearings” and then “Subcommittee on Health.”

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