Antibiotic abuse in pigs 'could create superbugs'

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The Independent Online

Pig farmers are ignoring European bans and potential risks to human health by increasing their use of antibiotics to force animals to grow unnaturally quickly, organic farmers allege.

The industry has more than doubled its use of the drugs since 1998, with breeders allegedly using a loophole which allows them to dose animals with antibiotics if the drugs are prescribed by a vet. But the number of pigs in the UK has decreased by a third since 1999. At that time, four antibiotics were banned in animal feed to reduce the risk of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria developing.

"There is evidence that antibiotics used in pig feed can make it more difficult to treat the hospital superbug VRE," the Soil Association, which campaigns for organic farming, said. "The situation in pig farming makes a mockery of the growth promoter ban, which was brought in because of concerns from scientists, despite strong industry opposition."

Scientists argue that regular use of the drugscould lead to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which could exchange genetic material with bacteria that infects humans. Existing human antibiotics are already under serious strain, with growing numbers of disease bacteria becoming resilient through overuse of the drugs.

Pig farmers argue that the use of antibiotics has been necessary because of the emergence in the 1990s of a new disease in pigs, called "post- weaning multi-systemic wasting syndrome" (PMWS), which affects piglets at about eight to 16 weeks and leads to diarrhoea, jaundice and even death.

"We have to contend with a new endemic disease where the mortality can be high, up to 10 per cent, compared to the usual 3 per cent," Stuart Harrison, executive director of the National Pig Association, said. "To say that we're using antibiotics gratuitously is wrong. We only use them where they're necessary, not for their own sake. They have to be prescribed by a vet, after all, and they cost money farmers don't want to spend."

Richard Young, policy advisor at the Soil Association, said PMWS was being used as a cover for antibiotic abuse. Figures obtained by the association show the amount of antibiotics prescribed by vets has risen from 23 tons in 1998, to 55 tons in 2001 - after the feed ban was introduced.

"PMWS is a viral disease - and you don't cure viral illnesses with antibiotics' he said. "My view is that PMWS is a syndrome that is symptomatic of intensive pig farming. The pigs are weaned there at three weeks, but they should be five to seven weeks' old. The reason they do that is so that they can get the sow pregnant again.

"But when you wean the animals early, their immune system is weak and they get diarrhoea. So the farmers call on the vet to give them Tylosin [an antibiotic] to control the disease problems from bacteria in the faeces. They get the drug prescribed once, and then it's just renewed."

The Soil Association is calling for the Government to set up an independent expert committee to review the problems associated with routine prophylactic use of antibiotics.