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ANTIBIOTICS ON THE FARM

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Not Just Another Additive

One of the most surprising parts of this story is not just that Danish farmers have pretty much kicked the chemical habit; it's the fact that executives and their food industry pushed them to do it. Just about anybody can tell you exactly when people in Denmark decided that farmers had to change.

It was one night in spring in the mid 1990s; the country's leading television network broadcast this expose. They called it "A Pig of a Medicine." The program showed pigs literally wallowing in yellow powder made from antibiotics.

"It came as a shock to everyone that growth promoters were, in fact, antibiotics, because it had almost been forgotten," says Wegener. "I mean, even the farmers, even their advisers sometimes didn't know they were antibiotics. It was just another additive like vitamins, and no one thought about it as an antibiotic for many years."

Government researchers discovered that drugs on the farms were causing a dangerous chain reaction. First, farmers were giving their animals the same important antibiotics that doctors use in hospitals. Second, bacteria in the animals' intestines were getting resistant to those drugs. Third, people were getting infected with those resistant bacteria when they ate the meat. And finally, some people were getting sick and almost dying because the most powerful antibiotics didn't work anymore. Wegener told Denmark's leaders, 'We've got to start banning antibiotics on the farms.' Critics said he'd destroy the country's economy. Their single biggest export is pigs.

"Well, I mean, there were warnings from other scientists that this would create an animal health disaster, you know, that animals would die in thousands, that farmers would go bankrupt, that what we do can basically [is] make Danish agriculture, you know, go out of business," says Wegener. "And that is a strong argument in a country that is relying so heavily on its agriculture and especially its meat production. And even in the light of that, we could not defend to ourselves, to our children, our ancestors, not to act."

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