With animal antibiotics in media headlines of late, Denmark finds itself at the forefront of research and investment in food safety.
As a country that exports 90% of its pork production to 140 countries around the world, Denmark has become a leader in food safety, and is constantly innovating to reduce bacteria contamination and antibiotic residues in meat. “Being a huge exporter, food safety is crucial to us. We would be dead if we didn’t have the highest standards you can find,” says Henrik Lauritsen, livestock procurement manager at Tican.
In that spirit, the Danish pig industry implemented a voluntary salmonella control programme in 1993. Under the regulation, herds are assigned to three different levels every month according to their level of salmonella antibodies. Currently 97.2% of pigs are in level 1 (no or few seropositive samples), 2.1% are in level 2 (a moderate proportion of seropositive samples), and 0.7% are in level 3 (a high proportion of seropositive samples), which requires in-depth investigation and slaughter in a separate facility to avoid contamination.
A penalty system deducts 2% from level 2 pigs’ carcase value, 4% for level 3, and the deduction increases to 6% if pigs stay in level 3 for over six months, and 8% for over 12 months, and farmers can access the data on salmonella in their herds from a web portal. This allows them to monitor their own progress and manage their production more efficiently.
Slaughterhouses are also held accountable and required to produce and implement an action plan if the prevalence of salmonella in meat is over 2% in four out of six months. If they fail to do so, the Danish veterinarian authorities may demand a salmonella reducing programme. Suppliers of breeding animals are also required to declare their salmonella levels.
This programme has resulted in a significant drop in the prevalence of salmonella in Danish pig meat, which was around 3% before chilling in 2008, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In comparison, EFSA data indicates that the UK had a 13.5% prevalence of salmonella before chilling that same year. Denmark’s is a whole-chain approach, constantly reviewed with the authorities. In 2003, the EU adopted a co-ordinated approach on zoonotic diseases, placing salmonella as a priority and, between 2004 and 2009, the number of human cases of salmonellosis fell by almost 50%.
When it comes to antibiotics, the Danish industry has had one of the lowest gram per kilogram of meat ratios in the EU since it banned veterinarians from selling medicines and prohibited advertising in 1995.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently hailed the measure, encouraging other countries to follow Denmark’s example. “Ideally, sales of an antimicrobial should never involve financial benefit for the prescriber. Limitations on the sales profits obtained by veterinarians in Denmark from 1994 to 1995 led to major reductions in the therapeutic use of antimicrobials, especially tetracyclines, without any obvious overall harm to animal health,” WHO said in its latest report on antimicrobial resistance. However, Denmark is still the only European country to have implemented the separation of prescription and sale of veterinary medicine.
Segregating animal health and commercial interests, the move resulted in a massive drop in antibiotic usage, from over 200,000kg in 1994 to about 80,000kg in 1999. Since then, the number has grown with the size of the pig herd, but the gram-per-pig ratio has stayed stable, around 3.5g/pig or 0.06g/kg for the past few years. In comparison, Germany and the UK use around 0.11g/kg, France uses 0.24g/kg and the US uses 0.3g/kg. Norway, Sweden and Finland are the lowest users with 0.04/kg.
Antibiotic growth promoters were banned in 2000 in Denmark, six years before the measure was implemented in the rest of the EU, and Denmark monitors medicine usage with a thorough VETSTAT, a system also introduced in 2000. Data on the quantity and use of antibiotics is collected at pharmacy level, and a nationwide survey, called DANMAP, allows the government to track the development of antibiotic resistance in livestock, food and humans, providing an accurate picture of the overall use of veterinary medicines for different species.
The UK and the Netherlands also maintain a central register for usage of veterinary medicine, but the Danish system is the only one that registers animal groups, herd owners and veterinary levels, allowing for statistics per vet and per herd.
A veterinary health plan is in place in all herds, and the use of cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones has been banned since 2010, as these categories are considered critically important for human medicine. As a result of these measures, as well as strict withdrawal periods between antibiotic administering and slaughter, antibiotic residue is virtually non-existent in Danish pig meat (0.004% of positive samples from finishers in 2009, compared to 0.02% in 2000). Residue is measured through the analysis of 20,000 samples per annum, four times the statutory minimum required by EU regulations.
Veterinary procedures on farms can be fastidious, but as farmer Ole Skårhøj explains, it results in better management and, consequently, healthier herds. He says: “We get a visit from the vet at least nine times a year, but generally every month. He sees the herd, checks for potential diseases and prescribes the medication, but will not sell it. We then have to go to the pharmacy to get it, so the consultation is segregated from the profit.
“When I treat animals, I have to register every treatment, and that actually keeps me alert to the use of medication. Everything is registered centrally with VETSTAT, so if farmers have a problem they can get consultancy.
“It is not a struggle to keep the herd healthy, I am okay with all these controls and think it’s the right thing to do.”
But as the issue of antibiotic resistance gains more momentum – the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that antimicrobial resistance results each year in 25,000 deaths and related costs of over €1.5bn (£1.24bn) in health-care expenses and productivity losses – the Danish industry is finding new ways to ensure minimum use of medicines on farms.
In September 2010, a ‘yellow card’ system was launched, raising a warning when farmers or veterinarians show a higher-than-average level of antibiotic consumption or prescription. Under the scheme, ‘yellow card’ recipients are invited to a meeting with authorities to determine the reasons behind these levels and implement corrective action if necessary, to reduce consumption within nine months.
The move resulted in a drop in antibiotic consumption from 3.75g/pig in July 2010 to 2.6g/pig in September 2011, and is evidence of the Danish industry’s commitment to continually improving food safety.