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Crowdsourcing Meat?

Paul Kando


Meat is an important energy source. But meatpacking has a health problem. Its workers, laboring close together, have proved to be an easy pick for Covid-19. Its millions of pigs, cattle and chickens, kept under crowded conditions, are overmedicated with antibiotics to keep them “healthy”. The overuse of antibiotic drugs has allowed the development of drug-resistant pathogens that can spread from animals to people and jeopardize the effectiveness of medicines against a range of ailments. Drug-resistant infections now claim over 700,000 lives worldwide annually, including 35,000 in the US.

hanging meat
Beef hanging in meat plant
photo credit: Beef Magazine

Meat is an important energy source. But meatpacking has a health problem. Its workers, laboring close together, have proved to be an easy pick for Covid-19. Its millions of pigs, cattle and chickens, kept under crowded conditions, are overmedicated with antibiotics to keep them “healthy”. The overuse of antibiotic drugs has allowed the development of drug-resistant pathogens that can spread from animals to people and jeopardize the effectiveness of medicines against a range of ailments. Drug-resistant infections now claim over 700,000 lives worldwide annually, including 35,000 in the US.

The US bans the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion, yet US farmers still use them to fatten pigs and increase profits. Livestock industry executives sit on government advisory committees, contribute to political campaigns and influence regulations to help ensure that public health investigators are routinely blocked from obtaining even the most basic information about individual farm practices.

In contrast, by changing the way they raise their pigs, Danish farmers have shown that antimicrobial use in pig husbandry can be substantially reduced without impacting productivity. Danish pig farmers use antibiotics at a rate seven times lower than US pork producers.

The Danish changes were achieved through tougher regulations and by removing a financial incentive that encouraged veterinarians to provide antibiotics when farmers requested them. Now vets can still prescribe antibiotics, but only pharmacies can sell them. New regulations also require farmers to pay veterinarians for regular visits, so Danish vets now sell knowledge and advice rather than medicine.

In addition to phasing out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, Danish authorities introduced higher taxes on medically important antibiotics and banned the use in pigs the most essential human medicines. The government has also set progressive national targets for reducing antibiotic use in animals. So far only 30 of Denmark’s 3,100 pig farms have failed to meet them.

Still, much of the antibiotic use reduction is voluntary. Farmers have simply learned to raise animals in healthier ways. Pigs now have more living space, improved ventilation and hygiene, and natural lighting in barns — reducing the stress that makes animals more susceptible to infection. “Safety zones” give newborns a place to sleep beyond the potentially lethal crush of their huge mothers. Rubber tubes hung inside pens give piglets something to gnaw on, other than their siblings’ tails. A daily sprinkling of fresh straw provides a cushion atop cold concrete floors and gives restless adolescents something nutritious to munch on. To reduce the stress that sometimes leads to infectious diarrhea, Danish piglets are weaned and separated from their mothers a week later than the average American piglet. Nursing sows have 50% larger cages.

These changes are documented in Danmap, an annual compendium that has become an international research resource. One of that report’s earliest findings documented that a 1995 ban on the antibiotic avoparcin in livestock led to the virtual disappearance of avoparcin-resistant bacteria in Danish chickens. Better animal welfare makes for stress-free animals, reducing the need for medication.

In the US, too, since 2015, the use of medically important antibiotics has fallen 47% in chickens, and 35% in pigs. But American pork producers claim it is ‘more challenging’ to wean pigs off antibiotics because they are slaughtered later than the average chicken — six months vs. six weeks — which increases an animal’s chances of getting sick. The Danish experience, however, shows it is possible to have both healthy pigs and far lower use of antibiotics. Industry officials in Denmark plan to raise 1.5 million pigs completely free of antibiotics within the next five years, up from 200,000 in 2018. Denmark, roughly the size of Maryland with a population of 6 million, raises 32 million pigs per year.

In the absence of farm-by-farm data, the US produces only a national estimate of the quantity of drugs used in livestock. Scientists are generally barred from doing research on farms. In contrast, government microbiologists frequently conduct field experiments on Danish pig farms. Already many of the measures adopted by Denmark are embraced by pig farmers across Europe. And a new international center to study antimicrobial resistance will soon open in Copenhagen.

But in the newly developing world, where demand for animal protein is growing, antibiotic use in livestock continues to surge. One recent study  predicted that antibiotic consumption by farm animals could climb 67% worldwide in the next decade — of great concern in this age of pandemics. The UN estimates that drug-resistant pathogens could claim 10 million human lives globally by 2050. Bold change is needed. Scientifically competent, ethical management would be a good beginning.