They call it the "Danish Experiment" - a source of pride for the country's 17,000 farmers. CBS Evening News Anchor Katie Couric reports how unlike industrial farms in the U.S., which use antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease, farmers in Denmark use antibiotics sparingly, only when animals are sick.
The experiment to stop widespread use of antibiotics was launched 12 years ago, when European studies showed a link between animals who were consuming antibiotic feed everyday and people developing antibiotic resistant infections from handling or eating that meat.
"We don't want to use more medicine than needed, and a lot of the medicine that is given is not needed," said Soren Helmer. Helmer is a second-generation pig farmer whose sows produce more than 30,000 pigs a year. When the ban started, he and his father thought the industry would suffer.
"We thought we could not produce pigs as efficient as we did before," Helmer said. "But that was proven wrong."
Since the ban, the Danish pork industry has grown by 43 percent - making it one of the top exporters of pork in the world. All of Europe followed suit in 2006. But the American Pork Industry doesn't want to.
"What we've seen in Denmark and other countries is that they actually have had some increases in cost of what it takes to produce a pig," said Liz Wagstrom, a veterinarian with the National Pork Board.
"So it's not that unqualified a success. If we did the same thing in the United States, we would likely see small producers pushed out of business, we'd have more sick and dying pigs, and none of that would result in a benefit to the U.S. consumer."
Without growth-promoting antibiotics, it only costs $5 more for every 100 pounds of pork brought to market in this country.
Animal Antibiotics a Threat?
That's a small price for public health, says Dr. Ellen Silbergeld,who has been studying the antibiotic resistance link between livestock and people for the past decade.
"I think the Danish and European experience indicate that there will be real and measurable public health benefits," she said. "There'll be improvements in food safety and actually in the prevalence of drug resistant infections in people."
Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming
According to one study, when different countries introduced certain antibiotics on farms, a surge occurred in people contracting antibiotic resistant intestinal infections one to two years later. One infection, Campylobacter, increased 20 percent in Denmark and 70 percent in Spain.
After the ban, a Danish study confirmed that removing antibiotics from farms drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and food.
Danish scientists believe if the U.S. doesn't stop pumping its farm animals with antibiotics, drug-resistant diseases in people will only spread.
"It's not going to be a time bomb that goes off like this," said Dr. Frank Aarestrup, of the Danish Food Institute at the University of Denmark. "It's something that's slowly getting more and more complicated, more difficult for us to actually treat infections.
Rep. Slaughter's "Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act"
Some American food producers agree.
"It's just gone too far," said Stephen McDonnell, CEO Applegate Farms.
"What most bothers you about the way industrial farmers in this country currently operate," Couric asked.
"We use too many antibiotics, we use too many growth promotants," McDonnell replied. "The singular focus is to create cheap meat. That's not always the best thing for the health of the Americans who buy it."
"We think with some subtle changes - giving them more space, feeding them a good diet, and not stressing them out by growing them too quickly - you don't even need to use antibiotics," McDonnell added.
McDonnell helps farmers like Duane Koch kick the habit.
"How long have you been raising turkeys, Duane, without using antibiotics," Couric asked.
"We started running without antibiotics roughly 14 years ago," Koch replied.
"Does it make you feel better doing it this way," Couric asked.
"Yeah," Koch said. "Because really, from using the antibiotics so long, a lot of them didn't work well any way anymore."
Today his 18 poultry farms scattered throughout Pennsylvania are more profitable than when he used antibiotics.
Koch says it costs very little to convert a farm to antibiotic-free. And it doesn't cost consumers much more either. People buying antibiotic free turkey thigh meat will spend around $1.40 versus $1.20 for conventionally raised birds.
Koch says higher-quality feed and improving living conditions, his birds are naturally healthier.
Couric asked, "What's the importance of giving them more space?"
"That's just our natural growth promotants," he said. "By giving them more space, we can get weights that are really close to what they're getting, you know, with the growth promotants."
Because farmers are raising livestock successfully without growth-promoting antibiotics - from Lebanon, Pennsylvania to outside Copenhagen - public health officials in this country say this is an idea whose time has come.
"We have identified here that we're talking about a public health issue, that the overuse of antibiotics on farms does pose a risk to human health," said Joshua Sharfstein of the FDA.
The FDA has for the first time come out against using certain antibiotics to promote growth in livestock.
And pending legislation in Congress would ban some types of antibiotics used to treat humans from being administered to healthy farm animals.
More from the pork and beef industry
National Pork Producers Council
National Pork Board's Facts About Pork
National Cattlemen's Beef Association
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