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Antibiotics under scrutiny

The public debate about the use of antibiotics in livestock production was resurrected recently following a report from the Department of Health. The Danish pig industry can point to major successes in limiting the unnecessary use of animal medicines.

The public debate surrounding the use of antibiotics and veterinary medicines by the livestock industry was re-ignited during March by the publication of the Chief Medical Officer's Annual Report, which referred to the growth of antimicrobial resistance as a “catastrophic threat” on a global scale. Although much of the report focused on overuse of antibiotic medicines in the human population, it also referred to the risks of antibiotic resistance in animals.

The statement by the Chief Medical Officer was swiftly followed by a report from 'Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics', representing the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and Sustain. The report was entitled “Antibiotic resistance – the impact of intensive farming on human health”, calling for more effective strategies to eliminate “inappropriate” antibiotic use in the livestock industry. While not in full agreement with all the report’s recommendations, the Danish pig industry was heartened that it acknowledged some of the initiatives taken in Denmark to reduce as much unnecessary use of antibiotics as possible, while recognising that proper use of medicine is an integral part of delivering high welfare standards. The Danish Pig Research Centre recently issued updated advice to producers on ‘best practice’ regarding use of veterinary medicines - Guidelines on Good Antibiotic Practice.

Since 1995, Danish legislation has stated that the local veterinarian may prescribe but cannot sell antibiotics and medicines may not be used prophylactically but must be prescribed to treat a specific disease identified in the herd. This has placed a much stronger emphasis on the vets role in working with farmers to raise the levels of animal health in the herd on the principle that prevention is better than cure.

Recent concerns have been expressed about the use of the same classes of antibiotics for both animal and human medicine and in 2010 the Danish pig industry agreed to ban the use of cephalosporins, used widely to treat staphylococcus infections in the human population. Denmark is also one of the few countries to have banned the use of fluoroquinolones in pigs, the latter also being widely used in human medication.

Denmark has robust measurement systems in place, which have informed a proper risk-based strategy in the development of controls on the use of veterinary medicines. The annual DANMAP survey was established in 1995 and tracks the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in animals, food and the human population.

In 2000, the Danish authorities established VETSTAT, a central database, in which vets and pharmacists register all prescriptions of veterinary medicines issued to individual farmers. It enables a much more accurate picture of the overall use of veterinary medicines for different species of livestock as well as an exact record of medicines used by individual farmers. Most other countries estimate use of veterinary medicines using sales data provided by pharmaceutical manufacturers, which often means one is unable to accurately assess use for individual species.

In 2009, VETSTAT data was used to issue a ‘yellow card’ to producers using above average amounts of antibiotics, who are then required to implement measures to reduce their usage.

The Danish pig industry has halved its usage of antibiotic medicines since 1995 it currently works out at 3.5g per pig produced compared to over 7g in the mid-1990s. Recent data published by the European Medicines Agency indicated that the Danish pig industry has one of the lowest levels of veterinary medicine usage among all major EU pig producing countries.



At a recent conference hosted by the National Office of Animal Health, consumer research was presented which clearly indicated many public misconceptions about the use of animal medicines.

'The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics' made a series of recommendations, including improved surveillance of antibiotic use and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in farm animals, as well as a ban on the use of antibiotics in animals, which have a ‘critically important’ role in human medication. The Danish pig industry can demonstrate that it has taken decisive action in both these areas.