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December 6, 2019; New York Times

“How many rounds of antibiotics does it take to raise a Danish pig?” asks Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times. On Soren Sondergaard’s farm of 35,000, typically only one course before slaughter, with a quarter or more of his swine never receiving any antimicrobial drugs at all.

“When I was a boy, we used to pour kilos of antibiotics into their feeding troughs,” says Sondergaard, now 40. “That’s a thing of the past.”

Denmark ranks among the world’s top pork exporters. The country is home to six million people, but the country’s farmers raise an astonishing 32 million pigs a year. US pork producers use antibiotics at a rate seven times higher than that of Danish farmers, according to a 2018 report by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.

The overuse of antibiotics is, of course, a leading cause of drug-resistant infections. Such infections, reports Jacob, “now claim 700,000 lives a year around the world, including 35,000 in the United States.” Jacobs adds that, barring a change in behavior, “the United Nations has estimated drug-resistant pathogens could claim 10 million lives globally by 2050.”

The changes in Denmark, Jacobs notes, are the product of tougher regulations and of removing a financial incentive that had encouraged veterinarians to liberally prescribe antibiotics. Cultural change among farmers was important too. In Denmark, explains Jacobs, “Farmers learned to raise animals in ways that kept them healthier. That has included providing pigs with more living space, improving ventilation and hygiene in confinement sheds, and reducing the stress that can make animals more susceptible to infection.”

As for the veterinarian rules, Jacobs writes that vets can still prescribe antibiotics, but only pharmacies can sell them. A silver lining for vets is that the government’s regulations also require farmers to pay veterinarians for regular visits. This move, according to Ken Steen Pedersen, who oversees porcine health for the Danish Veterinary Association, eased vet opposition. “Vets came to realize they could make their money from selling knowledge and advice to farmers rather than selling medicine,” Jacobs adds.

The other key change, taking a page from soccer, was a system of yellow cards. As Jacobs explains, “Since 2010, the government has set national targets for reducing antibiotic use in animals, starting with 10 percent the first four years and 15 percent the five subsequent years. Farms that exceed the targets earn a yellow card, a badge of dishonor that in 2018 was meted out to just 30 of Denmark’s 3,100 pig farms.”

Meanwhile, in the US, modest federal guidelines to discourage antibiotic use have been implemented. But Jacobs observes that consumer pressure has often been more powerful than federal rules.

“In response to shifting public sentiment, fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s no longer buy chicken from growers who use medically important antibiotics,” Jacobs notes. “McDonald’s last year announced it would begin scaling back purchases of beef raised with antibiotics. More than half the chickens in the United States are now raised without the drugs, according to the National Chicken Council.”

Additionally, Jacobs points out that, “Since 2015, the use of medically important antibiotics in chickens has fallen 47 percent, compared to 35 percent in pigs, according to the Food and Drug Administration.”

Still, many US farm associations resist acceding to changes in industry practices, holding to the belief that phasing out antibiotics would raise food prices. The attitude in Denmark is different. “Most of us have kids,” Sondergaard says. “We want to make sure we leave them a world where antibiotics still work.”

Jacobs adds, “Many of the measures adopted by Denmark are now being embraced by pig farmers across Europe. Last year, the Danish government announced it was creating an international center for the study of antimicrobial resistance, based in Copenhagen, that will employ hundreds of researchers.”—Steve Dubb