Should We Follow EU’s Antibiotic Example?

2/1/2014 7:00 AM
By Michelle Kunjappu Reporter

LANCASTER, Pa. — One model of antibiotic use in agriculture frequently touted by the media is the European Union, which banned subtherapeutic antibiotics in 1999, following similar bans by Sweden in 1986, followed by Denmark.

Several years down the road, now results of the ban are being watched by the rest of the world.

“If you don’t prevent disease, you end up treating disease, so they ended up treating disease,” Dave Wolfgang, Penn State Extension veterinarian, said at Lancaster’s recent Cattle Feeder’s Day.

“When they stopped using small cheap antibiotics in feed, they ended up using higher doses of therapeutic antibiotics, which more closely resemble drugs given to humans,” he said.

“When they got away from preventing diseases, they ended up using a lot more antibiotics for disease control. Prevention is where we need to go.”

All antibiotics are not alike, said Wolfgang, who noted that there are three broad classes of antibiotics as defined in pending FDA regulations: nonimportant, important, and critically important.

“The ones that we tend to use a lot of on the feed side are older-style antibiotics,” some that have been in use for 50 years, he said. Most are in the less important categories of antibiotics.

Many of these antibiotics have no use or are seldom used any longer in human medicine. These products, he said, are used primarily to prevent or control disease so fewer therapeutic treatments are needed.

Important and critically important antibiotics, then, are more useful as therapeutic products. These newer antibiotics more closely resemble the antibiotics given to humans.

The critically important antibiotics are restricted for livestock use except for specific, prescribed situations under the direction of a veterinarian, “because we want to try to reserve their effectiveness both for animals and for people,” Wolfgang said.

On the other hand, appropriate use of antibiotics at stressful times can help to prevent or control disease.

Maintaining a healthy animal, a healthy GI tract, he said, ensures that the animal feels better and will eat well.

“Helping them stay healthy or recover quickly is much better than treating them with high-powered antibiotics after they are sick,” Wolfgang said.

The problem the EU is facing, he said, is that there has been increased use of important antibiotics since farmers were unable to use nonimportant antibiotics to head off diseases.

The full report can be found at

Additionally there has been the cost of animal welfare, as animals battled diseases now that prevention-type primary antibiotics were no longer heading off sickness.

“Used judiciously and carefully, it’s better for the animals, better for the consumer, and better for our health,” said Wolfgang.

“If we’re not careful, activists and overregulation may make it impossible for us” to produce agricultural products, he said.

“If it is not economically viable in this country, that will force ag someplace else,” he said. “That’s bad for everyone, because we do a great job with environmental stewardship, food safety and quality.”

For additional reading, “Lessons on the Danish Ban on Feed Grade Antibiotics” is available at

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