Ending the practice of using antibiotics as growth promoters in livestock reduces human health risks without harming animal health or farmers, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report released today. The WHO report is based on the experience of Denmark, which has phased out the controversial practice.
For more than 40 years, livestock producers have used low doses of antibiotics to fatten healthy livestock, presumably by easing minor infections that don't make animals overtly sick. This regular treatment can lead to bacteria that resist antibiotics, including strains that cause disease in humans. In 1998, Denmark became the first country to ban the practice, despite industry predictions of sicker animals, more contaminated meat, and economic pain to farmers. To see how the so-called "Danish experiment" has played out, researchers have studied the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in farm animals, in slaughterhouses, in meat sold in grocery stores, and in healthy people; as well as the impact of the ban on animal health and economic costs to farmers. The WHO panel, which consisted of 10 independent academic and government scientists from eight countries, met last fall in Foulum, Denmark, to see what had been learned.
The phase-out reduced overall antibiotic use in pigs and poultry by 54% from its peak in 1994 to 2001, the panel concluded. Animals seemed to do fine: There was only a small increase in the use of antibiotics to treat infections. At the same time, there was no rise in meat-borne infections such as Salmonella or Campylobacter. The net annual loss for pig producers was just 1% and was even lower for poultry producers--a cost that might have been offset by increased consumer confidence in the meat, followed by higher demand, according to the panel. "Under conditions similar to those in Denmark," the panel wrote, "the use of antimicrobials for the sole purpose of growth promotion can be discontinued."
Richard Carnevale of the U.S. Animal Health Institute, which represents manufacturers of animal antibiotics, says that the public health benefits in Denmark were negligible and faults Denmark, which provided the data, for minimizing "significant impacts on animal health and economic costs to producers," such as building special barns to reduce exposure to bacteria. But Stuart Levy, president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, a Boston-based advocacy group, calls the WHO report "important" and agrees with its findings. "The time has come to remove growth promoters," Levy says. "We don't need them."