Is it possible to fight antimicrobial resistance – making sure doctors can treat people effectively with antibiotics – while still enabling farmers to produce meat efficiently? Yes – Denmark is showing how.
Ever since penicillin was discovered, antibiotics have been doctors’ main weapon in the fight against bacterial infections, in both humans and animals. But when penicillin and other types of antibiotics are used excessively or for non-therapeutic purposes, they can lose their effectiveness. The bacteria can become resistant to the drugs, making it harder – or even impossible – to treat infections.
Today, antibiotic resistance is a major global problem. In fact, the World Health Organization has declared it one of the main threats to human health.
In Denmark, university researchers, authorities and the agriculture industry have taken this threat very seriously. Over the past two decades, they have put in place reforms to control agricultural use of antibiotics. Denmark was the first country in the world to ban the use of antimicrobial growth promoters in animals. This has significantly reduced the prevalence of resistant bacteria and is helping to preserve antibiotics for human diseases.
“Solid scientific foundation and bold policy action”
In a recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives, written by American science journalist Sharon Levy, director of the Danish National Food Institute Jørgen Schlundt explains that the efforts have been successful because they are based on a solid scientific foundation and bold policy action.
The Danish ban on the use of antimicrobial growth promoters in the rearing of livestock, introduced in the 1990s, and the rules for the use of antimicrobials in livestock production were based on solid research and surveillance data. The ban on growth promoters was – precisely because of the solid data – introduced in the entire European Union in 2006.
In the USA, where policy on antibiotic use in livestock production has long been in a limbo, Congress is now paying attention to Denmark’s systematic and scientific approach to tackling the problem.
Need for international standards
Levy’s article also highlights the National Food Institute’s research, demonstrating the need to have international standards for the use of antimicrobials in food production. Otherwise, problems with resistance in one country can create problems beyond its borders.
For example, so-called ESBL-producing bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic drugs cephalosporins have been found in chickens reared in Denmark, where the drug is not used. The resistant bacteria have been traced back through two generations to poultry imported from abroad. These ‘grandparent’ birds were treated with cephalosporins early in life outside of Denmark, and the bacteria that developed resistance were then passed down from generation to generation.
“More efficient production and less disease”
Perhaps surprisingly, the bold antibiotics policy in Denmark – the world’s leading exporter of pork – appears to have had little negative impact on the nation’s pork industry. While the cost of raising pigs has gone up by about €1 per animal, the overall productivity has also increased. “We have more efficient production and less disease,” says Schlundt in Levy’s article.
The policy has also had a positive impact on animal welfare, with many farmers allowing piglets to stay with their mothers for a longer period, helping to boost their immune systems naturally.