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Becca's blog: Denmark's approach to antibiotics - good or bad?

18th Oct 2019 / By Rebecca Veale

Becca Veale attended a meeting this week hosted by Cargill and TVC, which heard from Jakob Korsgard, owner and veterinarian at the Ø Vet practice in Denmark. Here, she reflects on Jakob’s presentation about antibiotic use in Danish pigs.

Rebecca Veale pigsPig production in Denmark is different to production in the UK. The dynamic is very different, given that over 90% of Denmark's pork is exported – therefore comparisons must be drawn very carefully.

Antibiotic use in Denmark is low in pigs. They use about half the antibiotics we use in the UK, but there is strong policy which governs their use and has brought about a shift in behaviour around these crucial medicines.

Their yellow card system, which bans the use of critically important antibiotics, requires compulsory recording, is open for anyone to view and means vets can’t dispense or sell medicines, dictates the behaviour of producers and vets in Denmark.

For those not familiar with the yellow card system, it is a way of keeping usage low and penalising producers that use more antibiotics than the government deems appropriate. The Danes use Average Daily Dose (ADD) figures to measure antibiotic use in sows and piglets, weaners and finishers.  

If you exceed the maximum ADD target it triggers a yellow card which means the producer is subject to two unannounced inspections in a nine month period by a state vet. These inspections cover every aspect of production and all records, the cost of which is picked up by the producer.

The ADD figures have been reduced six times since they were set in 2010 and are now nearly half the original figure. Jakob explained that there is an expectation for a continued reduction to zero. He also highlighted that the challenge for vets and producers is that the ADD is now very easy to exceed, and this is dictating the action some are taking when they have a disease challenge or challenges on their unit.

The advice being given by vets is largely about a proactive approach to pig health with the use of vaccination, management improvements such as biosecurity, records monitoring and reducing stress and the use of diagnostics.

But to keep their usage low, vets are now prescribing lower doses which creates the perfect environment for antibiotic resistance to develop in bacteria, which is the very issue we’re trying to prevent. They do take sock samples (boot covers are sent off for analysis following a walk around the unit) and so far the results haven’t shown any resistance. But you can’t help feeling that they will only be able to act once the issue is present and the damage is already done.

Waiting to treat is also common. Producers are putting off using medicines because of their concern about the effect on their ADD and, as such, there are isolated welfare issues, even though welfare compromises are not deemed to be an increasing problem.

Mortality took a hit for a long while, although over time it has gradually come down. Jakob explained the challenge this poses for him as a vet, and you can’t help but wonder that, as they reduce the ADD further, he may be compromised in one of the fundamental roles of a vet, which is to treat sick animals.

There is a lot to take away from Jakob and the Danish model. Their proactive approach to health is positive as vets are recognised for their time and advice, but the heavy burden of the ADD limits is not responsible.

I am very pleased that our model, a collaborative voluntary approach between industry and Government, will continue as we explore sector targets post 2020 (we’re involved in this through the Pig Health and Welfare Council Antimicrobial Use sub-group).

Some producers in the UK might already use very little or no antibiotics, but we have an environment in which animal welfare comes first and it is expected that if there is a sick pig, we can treat it with the right medicine at the right dose. In my view, this is a far more responsible approach.

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