The World Health Organization has thrown its weight behind growing moves to ban the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in livestock.
A WHO report published on Wednesday concludes that a voluntary ban by Danish farmers on growth promoters in chicken and pigs cut antibiotic resistance in bacteria in the animals by over 90 per cent, with little cost to farmers and no increase in the bacterial burden of meat.
The report comes just weeks after the European Union’s agriculture ministers adopted a total ban on antibiotic growth promoters in animals from 2006.
Antibiotics are used to treat specific infections. But low doses are also added to feed in intensive livestock production to make animals grow faster, probably by limiting sub-clinical infections. In the late 1990s it became clear that the resistance genes this promotes in bacteria in the animals’ guts spread to human bacteria, causing more antibiotic-resistant infections.
The WHO first recommended the banning the practice in 2000. Peter Braam, of the WHO’s infectious diseases unit, says the new report heralds “more emphasis” on that recommendation. Most meat and pharmaceutical industries are opposed to any ban.
In the new report, 10 independent scientists from Britain, the US, China and elsewhere reviewed the results so far of the “Danish experiment”. Danish farmers had voluntarily banned all antibiotic growth promoters from chickens and pigs by 1999. Denmark is the world’s largest exporter of pork.
Antibiotic use overall dropped by 54 per cent. But there was no resulting surge in animal disease, with barely any change in the amount of antibiotics used to treat specific infections.
There was no change in the cost of producing chickens, and a one per cent increase in pigs – which the panel thought would be offset by increased consumer confidence in meat, and reduced public health costs.