The headlines are scary: MRSA, the antibiotic resistant ‘super bugs’, can be found in more and more hospitals, the WHO is raising the alarm over antibiotics of last resort which may stop working at any time. A lot of blame for this state of affairs is directed at agriculture: 70% of all antibiotics are used on farm animals. A practice that has to change and fast – if we do nothing, worldwide annually 10 million people are likely to die from drug resistant infections by 2050.
On February 8th the Royal Society of Medicine brought together health professionals, veterinarians and farmers to get the facts straight and have a discussion. The good news: people in the farming sector are aware of the problem and there are solutions, it is possible to reduce antibiotic use and have excellent animal welfare standards. In fact: excellent animal welfare is the precondition to reducing antibiotic use
There are farmers in Britain, in continental Europe and in the US who have been raising pigs without or just minimal use of antibiotics.
Meet Ron Madesen, hog farmer in southwest Iowa….
‘Look at these guys over there, they are like toddlers in the terrible twos’, says Ron as he points out a group of piglets not yet very successfully rooting up grass, ‘once they’ve managed to make a hole with their snouts you sometimes just see their bums sticking up in the air’. We are standing at the edge of a pasture that is home to a group of sows and their offspring. When the sows come here for farrowing, each sow chooses one of the freshly prepared, clean A-framed huts to live in. On this hot, late autumn day most of them lie stretched out next to it in the shade while a dozen or so piglets scramble over each other to feed. Ron Mardesen weans them once they are about five weeks old: ‘you see it when they are ready’, he says. They stay on the pasture with their mums for another five or six weeks until the young adults are moved as a group into a hoop house, open on two sides, but with a thick layer of straw that keeps them warm, clean and dry. The additional fresh bale of straw they get once a week also keeps them entertained. ‘Any farm animal should have only one bad day in its life and that would be the last one’, says Ron Mardesen. Proper preventative vaccinations, good bedding and sound nutrition – he grows all feed on his farm – will keep his pigs happy and healthy until then.
Ron Mardesen has always kept pigs on grass and that makes him a rare exception in Iowa, the number one pork producing state in the US. There are about 21 million hogs in Iowa, almost all of them raised in confinement. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of animals live in crammed conditions and on slatted floors above a ‘lagoon’ full of their excrements. ‘The stink in these units is horrendous’, says Mardesen, ‘I could never work there and I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to do so either’.
But if you look at the balance sheet (and nothing else), raising pigs that way makes sense: the sows produce about 25% more piglets and they take about two months less to reach their target weight. The result: lower costs, more meat, higher profits.
Where do antibiotics come into this? Antibiotics have a curious side effect: they make pigs put on weight. Fast. In Britain it was perfectly legal to use antibiotics as a growth promoter until the practice was outlawed in 2006. Which unfortunately does not mean that antibiotic use in the pig industry has suddenly dropped and we all don’t need to worry anymore. These days, veterinarians have to prescribe antibiotics but they can do so as a prophylactic measure. If you keep your pigs in confinement, stressed out by noise, no room to move and nothing to play with, any infection is bound to spread in no time. A prophylactic dose of antibiotics can prevent that – as well as having the nice side effect of making your pigs put on weight … fast.
All Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have banned the prophylactic group treatment of pigs with antibiotics. As a result their antibiotic use has dropped considerably.
But there are illnesses in pigs that do need to be treated. Pigs are susceptible to respiratory infections and bugs that cause them to have diarrhoea. Studies have shown that the time of weaning is critical: the earlier piglets are weaned the higher becomes the risk of infection – which then has to be treated with antibiotics. Ron Marsden weans his pigs when ‘they are ready’, at 5 or 6 weeks of age. A few days more or less don’t matter, the sows will enjoy a break anyway before they may (or may not) get pregnant again. In intensive pork production sows should get pregnant again as soon as possible and that’s why piglets are weaned sometimes after only 10 days. It’s an incredibly stressful event for them, infections, in particular diarrhoea, are common and need to be treated with antibiotics. Studies have shown that the use of antibiotics in piglets drops dramatically when they are weaned after 30 days or later.
Even pigs raised on grass in a conventional or organic system will very occasionally have to be treated with antibiotics. ‘If you have a sow that is in acute trouble while giving birth and the weather conditions are horrible, of course you’ll give her antibiotics to ward off infection and keep her and her litter safe’, one farmer told me. The use of antibiotics to treat a sick animal or in a critical situation like a difficult birth is a necessity if we want animals to be raised and treated humanely. But routinely adding antibiotics to the feed as a preventative measure (and the added benefit of weight gain) is totally unnecessary: if the pigs have enough room, nice, clean bedding, nutritious feed and something to keep them occupied they are far less likely to get ill. And piglets don’t need massive doses of antibiotics if they are allowed to stay with their mums long enough.
What can consumers do? If you buy free range pork there is a good chance that the pigs have been raised outdoors and not been given antibiotic on a routine basis. But it’s no guarantee: ‘outdoor bred’ can mean the piglets were born outside but raised in confinement. In an ideal world you’d know your farmer and how he works. Certified organic pork guarantees excellent animal welfare standards and antibiotic use will be the very rare exception to treat a sick animal.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.