Over the last few years in several countries, including the EU, there´s been an increase in the awareness regarding the high levels of antibiotics used in livestock farming, measured in mgs/PCU (Population Correction Unit). To be precise, the antibiotic consumption for the whole European livestock industry in 2013 was 121 mgr/PCU according to the EMA (European Medicines Agency).
Most of these antibiotics are given as in-feed medication and, a large proportion of those are administered to pigs.
Besides the already very important matter of human and animal health, due to the appearance of resistant super bacteria (do not forget the ONE HEALTH concept promoted by the UN), and the environmental contamination problems, there are implications about the image of pork perceived by consumers and also commercial repercussions. Regions such as the European Union, which is the largest pork producer and exporter in the world, will have no other choice but to rationalize and reduce antibiotic use. The whole industry, but particularly exporting countries, will need to improve their image as business opportunities will appear against competitors, at an international level, in the worldwide meat market, based on the criterion of antibiotic use.
Countries that cannot compete in terms of production costs because of higher prices of feed and labour, amongst others, must compete in quality, defined as a greater reliability of public health processes and traceability of the meat produced.
Certain countries like the EU ones, have already taken many measures aimed to increase the global quality standards, such as banning the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, not authorizing the use of ractopamine, and enforcing welfare and environmental measures stricter than their competitors’.
Making clear that PORK PRODUCED IN EUROPE already has all health guaranties and is totally free of antibiotics, Europe has to specialize in producing meat with the highest standards of food safety, that gives confidence to consumers from all over the world.
We have a very positive precedent in the EU ban on the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2006, when the most pessimistic predicted a catastrophe, with worsened technical indexes in growing pigs (mainly FCR), increased mortality and digestive disorders. When these problems developed, they were minimal and quickly solved. Does anybody nowadays miss using antibiotics as growth promoters in livestock farming?
Something similar happened with colistin. Given the problem of its high use in livestock farming, mainly in Spain, Italy and Germany —which combined use, according to the ESVAC (European Surveillance of Veterinary Antimicrobial Consumption) 80% of the colistin consumed by European livestock—, and the new use of colistin in human health to control E. coli resistant strains, the EMA (European Medicines Agency) recommended to the European pig sector in 2016 to make an effort to voluntarily reduce the use of colistin, reaching levels of consumption of 1 mgr./PCU for those countries classed as “moderate consumers” and 5 mgr./PCU in the so-called “high consumers”.
The European pig industry must address this problem and reduce drastically the use of colistin without replacing it with alternative antibiotics such as apramycin or neomycin.
What can be learnt from all this? That antibiotics must be used rationally, which means using them mainly as a treatment, and only on exceptional occasions as metaphylaxis and/or prophylaxis.
How to reduce antibiotic use
Awareness of the problem is the main requisite to establish a general strategy in any livestock company, whether small, big or a cooperative. Next, the problem must be approached from a veterinary point of view with total support from the company´s management.
The next step is to establish an action plan including a starting point and the objective to be achieved, which will be more or less ambitious depending on the level of antibiotic use, measured in mgr/PCU.
Knowing where we are, in a clear and efficient way, and where we want to go, will help us to improve in a short period of time.
Once the starting point is known (i.e., how much antibiotic is being used), the rest will be easier. Not only the level of antibiotics used must be known, but also which antibiotics are being used, how they are being used, for what purpose and at which production stage.
Answering these questions will clarify ideas and it should allow us to reduce and rationalize antibiotic use and improve economical and technical results since, in general, antibiotics have been used to solve problems that can be solved using other strategies: improving facilities, increasing environmental control, decreasing density, adequate feeding mainly in the post-weaning period, better water quality …
Without, in any way, detracting from the work done by many veterinarians, we must think over this issue and see it as an opportunity to produce better and more efficiently.
Table 1. Example of mortality in the post-weaning period in a farm where antibiotics and zinc oxide have been removed making changes in the feed and working with diets where crude protein levels have been reduced and high quality raw materials have been added. The month in red font corresponds to the implementation of formulation changes in a farm that was already working without antibiotics or zinc oxide.
|Month 1||4.2 %|
|Month 2||5.1 %|
|Month 3||4.6 %|
|Month 4||3.9 %|
|Month 5||4.8 %|
|Month 6||4.4 %|
|Month 7||5.6 %|
|Month 8||2.2 %|
|Month 9||1.8 %|
Finally, a key idea: there is no "silver bullet"; farms must be assessed on an individual basis, applying the most adequate solutions for every single one after evaluation of their specific problems. Sometimes we’ll take a step backwards, but most of the time, when analysing the reason why plans have not worked, we will come up with new improvement strategies.