Danish piglets receive antibiotics on eleven out of every 56 days – every fifth day on average – according to the latest report from DANMAP, a national programme that monitors antimicrobial consumption and resistance in bacteria.
Piglets are separated from their mothers four weeks after their birth and placed in weaner sheds, where their food is infused with antibiotics on 20 percent of the days to treat predominantly gastro-intestinal health issues, such as diarrhoea. The dosage surpasses that used for both grown and older pigs.
According to Vibeke Frøkjær Jensen, a senior scientist at the National Food Institute and the co-creator of the annual DANMAP report, these results indicate a persistent health problem within the Danish pig farming industry.
Separation from mother causes stress
The reasons for the widespread gastro-intestinal diseases of piglets are mainly consequences of the stress of being taken away from their mother, put together with other piglets they don’t know, and having to switch from breast milk to solid food too quickly.
Healthy piglets end up consuming antibiotics too, as the medicine gets mixed in the feed and drinking water at large-scale farms.
Vaccines preferable to antibiotics
Besides reducing stress-generating farming practices, Frøkjær points out that substituting vaccines against particular bacteria for broad spectrum antibiotics, while more expensive, would already go a long way towards improving the situation.
The practice is worrying not only for piglets: tetracycline, the broad spectrum antibiotic that is most commonly used in these cases is known to induce resistance of certain bacteria – meaning that the antibiotics gradually lose their effectiveness in their application on humans.
As Henrik Westh, the head of the MRSA research centre at Hvidovre Hospital, points out in an interview with Ingeniøren, the excessive use of antibiotics to treat piglets does not address the root cause of the problem and instead serves to perpetuate an unhealthy agricultural production style. They are treating the symptoms, he said, not the disease.