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Antibiotic Resistance and Trans-Atlantic Trade

June 4, 2014

In the European Union, Denmark leads the way in reducing the use of antibiotics in livestock production, especially among swine. And considering the emerging public health crisis around antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, the Danes’ example is a model worth following.

There is some concern, however, that trade agreements underway between the United States and the EU will undermine Denmark’s high standards and put the world at continued, or increased, risk from antibiotic resistance. “One of our concerns with reducing barriers to trade,” said Lance Price, a Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University and a former CLF-Lerner Fellow, “is that the EU’s higher standards would be reduced to our relatively non-existent standards.”

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future convened a Congressional briefing to address the ways in which a trans-Atlantic trade agreement might have an impact on the public health threat. The briefing was held in cooperation with the office of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D–NY-26), who has long championed legislation designed to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics by reducing their use in livestock production.

The negotiations around the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, also known as T-TIP, have been held in secret. Karen Hansen-Kuhn, a trade analyst from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said, “What’s on the table with the negotiations is not transparent. It’s happening in secret, in a black box. The process is really flawed.” She predicted that the negotiations will finish in 2015.

Referring the industrial livestock production model that is the norm in the U.S., Dr. Price said that CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are “a tried and true formula for creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” As has been proven beyond debate at this point, the routine use of antibiotics to promote growth and to prevent disease (as opposed to treating disease) spurs the evolution of resistant bacteria. Denmark’s example, said Dr. Price, is strong evidence that by reducing the use of antibiotics in swine production, you can reduce the number of antibiotic-resistant organisms.

Jørgen Schlundt, the director of the National Food Institute of the Technical University of Denmark, spoke of the need for rigorous data monitoring and drug surveillance at operations where livestock are raised. He said Denmark’s DANMAP, an integrated surveillance system for monitoring antimicrobial risk, only costs the nation about $1 million every year. “We need to have the data in order to act in a sensible way,” he said. “We need data from the veterinarian side and the human health side.” In other words, data must be collected regarding both antibiotic use (in livestock production) and regarding antibiotic resistance (in humans). Baseline data are essential, as well, for proper surveillance, said Dr. Schlundt.

In Denmark, the swine business is big business. In a country of 5 million people, there are 30 million pigs. In 1994 when policies were changed to de-incentivize vets from prescribing antibiotics to livestock, there was a lot of concern that pigs would die and profits would be lost. But Denmark’s swine industry is now more efficient with fewer antibiotics than it was before 1994.

- Christine Grillo