The prestigious journal Nature this week called for reining in the use of antibiotics in agriculture, adding to the growing chorus of scientists and public health advocates seeking reforms. “If farmers do not rein in the use of antibiotics for livestock, people will be severely affected,” read one of the weekly journal’s editorials. “The spread of dangerous bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics is fueled by overuse of the drugs — and not just in people. Farmers around the world routinely feed antibiotics to their animals, not only to prevent and treat infections, but also to make their animals grow faster. This leads to drug-resistant bacteria in the animals, and this resistance can spread to the bacteria that infect us.” The editorial noted that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock raising is a global issue, in part because pathogens do not respect international borders — “As long as any one country pumps its pigs and poultry full of drugs, everyone is at risk.” The journal pointed to Denmark’s ban on subtherapeutic antibiotics in pork production — what is now known as the “Danish experiment” — as a prime example of successful reform. In 1998, the poultry industry in Denmark voluntarily stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion and by 2000 the pork industry followed suit. In a separate Nature article, also published this week (Subscription Required), Frank Aarestrup, the head of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Antimicrobial Resistance Among Foodborne Pathogens also called for changes in the way livestock farms use antibiotics. “This is an unsustainable situation,” wrote Aarestrup. “Since many farmers began giving antibiotics to livestock in the late 1940s, people have been infected with strains of bacteria that are resistant to those antibiotics.” Danish farmers and public health officials decided to be proactive and have succeeded and reducing overall drug usage. “Since the mid-1990s in Denmark, the use of antimicrobial agents per kilogram of livestock produced has dropped by 60%. And pork production has actually increased by 50% since 1994, before any interventions began,” noted Aarestrup. He credits Denmark’s national antimicrobial resistance monitoring system and targeted regulations on usage, as well as the country’s 1995 prohibition on veterinarians profiting on selling antibiotics to farmers. “The conflict of interest is clear,” he wrote. “The more antibiotics farmers use, the more money these vets make. I believe that this decision had a huge impact on the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. Vets in the United States and most of the EU continue to profit from prescribing these drugs.” Though he admits reducing reliance on antibiotics is “far from easy,” Aarestrup says other countries can reform their antibiotics policies by learning from the Danish example and tailoring their reforms to work with their local needs. The journal’s editorial writers argue that it is “unlikely to be that simple.” Why? The authors point to the lucrative status quo and lack of political will to make big changes. “The biggest obstacle is likely to be generating the political resolve and public support needed to crack down on the lucrative trade in antibiotics,” reads the journal’s editorial. “This was possible in Denmark because there, perhaps uniquely, warnings from the medical community were picked up by the media, creating widespread public awareness of the problems caused by the overuse of antibiotics. People in other countries may not be so engaged, particularly when faced with the inevitable lobbying of the agricultural and veterinary sectors, which make big profits from selling antibiotics.” The authors argue that more specific data is needed to build the case for tighter controls on antibiotics. They suggest perhaps surveying 10 farms in the United States to try to estimate drug usage nationally. “The drugs are almost certainly overused, and are almost certainly having a damaging impact on public health, so publishing the results would help in raising awareness of the problem and generating the necessary support,” they write. “The people of Denmark deserve praise for their efforts, and other countries, and their people, should look more carefully at what their animals are being fed.”