According to the meat industry, the debate over legislation pending in the House that would ban the use of sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics comes down to a simple “fact”: hog-farming on any scale without sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics is impossible. The National Pork Producers Council says so. The American Veterinary Medical Association says so. Heck, even GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa says so.
For the record, these folks also say that livestock producers don’t really use 70% of all antibiotics distributed in the US as the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates. And you know what, we have no idea if they’re right. What many people don’t realize is that antibiotic use by American livestock producers is one of the best kept secrets on the planet. The UCS had to deduce that number based on US sales of antibiotics combined with data from a country that does publish figures on antibiotics use in livestock: Canada. That’s right. No one in the US, not the government, not industry — no one — has any responsibility to tell Americans how much antibiotics is actually in their meat. We’re just to supposed to Take Industry’s Word For It that everything’s peachy.
Which is why the Danes insistence on being a part of this debate is so important. Denmark is the largest hog producer in Europe and, realizing the threat to public health posed by routinely feeding healthy livestock antibiotics, they stopped doing it. Over a decade ago. To listen to the AVMA and Chuck Grassley describe Denmark’s experience, you’d think that Denmark’s hog industry went the way of New York Harbor’s oyster beds — a happy, productive industry destroyed by mismanagement. Except, insist the Danes, that just isn’t so. And they keep saying it. First they testified at hearings in the House. They said things like this:
[T]he discontinuation of non-therapeutic antibiotic use has not negatively impacted long-term swine productivity in Denmark. The facts outlined show that long-term swine production in Denmark has not been negatively impacted by the ban on non-therapeutic antibiotic use.
And so as not to be misconstrued, they said every thing was fine twice. But pages of testimony along these lines were apparently not enough to stop people from lying about the Danish record. The Danes, being a hot-headed people, couldn’t stand it any longer. Recently, they met with a Congressional delegation to show them a blistering PowerPoint presentation that set the record straight. And then, as reported by Phil Brasher in the Des Moines Register, they wrote a letter [PDF]. This time, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:
We know that various rumours and sometimes “creative” interpretations of what has taken place in Denmark have been circulated to members of the US Congress, and we are grateful for having been given this opportunity to correct some of these stories.
Take that, Chuck Grassley! Attached to the letter was a 20 page report documenting the success of Denmark’s ban on sub-therapeutic dosing of livestock. The Danes, understanding full well their audience, used a simple bulleted list to declare the following (I bolded some things for even more clarity):
•The Danish swine production has increased from 18.4 millions in 1992 to 27.1 millions in 2008; a 47% increase.
• Productivity increased continuously before and after NTA (Non-Therapeutic Antibiotics) stop
• Weaner [young pig] mortality increased before and a few years after NTA stop – the rate seemed unaffected, except the first year after the ban. Mortality has improved considerably in recent years (management)
• Weaner average daily gain decreased until and increased after NTA stop (continuously during a decade).
• Finisher [mature pig] mortality increased before and after NTA stop, similar rate. (mortality decreased first year)
• Finisher average daily gain increased before and after NTA stop
• Total antimicrobial consumption has fluctuated over time, but has in summary decreased from 100.4 to 48.9 mg/Kg pork produced; a 51% reduction.
• Major reductions in resistance among animal pathogens, indicator bacteria and zoonotic bacteria
That last bit is the crucial point — end excessive antibiotics use and end increases in resistance among pathogens. Period. This is not theory — this is what actually happened.
So, really. The Danish experiment worked. Congress needs to pass House Rep. Louise Slaughter’s bill — aka PAMTA, ban sub-therapeutic antibiotic use and our hog production will be just fine. In the end, though, this is about human health and the strong indication from Denmark is that a ban will indeed significantly reduce the odds of a superbug arising out of a hog farm. That’s the goal. Are we clear on this? No more lies, please. We wouldn’t want to make the Danes any angrier, would we?