Science - June 18, 2009


The growing use of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming is causing increasing resistance to antibiotics - a serious threat to public health. One of the underlying reasons for this is poor quality animal feed. Cheap antibiotics are widely used to counteract the effects of cheap feed. A public health plan is being drawn up to tackle the problem, and if it doesn’t work Minister Verburg of Agriculture and Food (LNV) has stronger measures up his sleeve.

Antibiotics are a cure-all for intensive cattle, pig and poultry farmers in the Netherlands, who use them to cover up all sorts of management problems, from poor quality feed to unhygienic and drafty sheds. Farmers get antibiotics on prescription from the vet, who acts as a dispensing pharmacist as well.

The latest annual study by monitoring body MARAN reports that antibiotic resistance in 2007 was up on the previous year. Antibiotics prescriptions by vets have almost doubled in the last ten years, according to figures from FIDIN, the association of ani¬mal drug producers in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, organizations representing vets, livestock farmers, animal drug producers, feed suppliers and meat processors signed an agreement in December 2008 to cut down the use of antibiotics and halt the rising resistance to bacteria. What is needed is a registration system for animal drugs, so that livestock farmers and vets can check whether they are using more antibiotics than their colleagues. Also, vets and farmers should draw up a business health plan to cut down the health risks on the farm – the reason for the high level of prescriptions.

There are four reasons for high levels of antibiotic use. One is the falling quality of animal feeds in recent years, say veterinarian representative Hugo de Groot and Professor Dik Mevius of the Central Veterinary Institute, chief writer of the MARAN study. Since the use of meat-and-bone meal in feeds was banned in the wake of the BSE outbreak, less digestible plant proteins have been used instead. The quality of the feed has also been affected by the high prices of raw materials.

A second reason is that thanks to upscaling, diseases are noticed less quickly, which results in the whole herd being treated. Then there is all the transportation of animals from one company to another, and fourthly there is the often poor climate in the sheds. There is more disease in a draughty shed than in a well-ventilated one. ‘The vet can advise the livestock holder to improve the climate and the management or to buy better quality feed’, says Bondt. ‘But the farmer decides whether it’s affordable.’

And this brings us to the bottom line: the economic reality. Combining cheap feed with cheap antibiotics to counteract its ill effects is more economical than buying high quality feed.

If the proposed measures don’t get results within a couple of years, Minister Verburg of LNV has a few stronger measures up his sleeve. The government could make antibiotics more expensive, for example. ‘That would work’, says Mevius. ‘The German government puts six percent VAT on livestock feed and nineteen percent on feed with antibiotics, and antibiotic use has gone down.’

Something else the minister could do is to take away vets’ dispensing licenses, as has already been done in Sweden and Denmark. But according to Mevius, this doesn’t have much impact.

A third option would be to check more for antibiotic use. ‘The Danish model’, says Mevius. ‘That works. In Danish livestock farming less antibiotics are used than in the Netherlands and there is less resistance.’

In comparison with other European countries for which there are statistics on veterinary prescriptions, antibiotic use per animal is highest in the Netherlands.

Five times more antibiotics are used in pig and chicken farming in the Netherlands than in the human health services. The figures for dairy cows are the same as those for humans.