Producing pork without subtherapuetic antibiotics is possible, but it comes at a cost. Just ask Denmark's pork producers how a ban on those products has changed their lives and their businesses.

First keep in mind that Denmark has a population of 5.3 million people, which about equals the state of Iowa. They raise 22.5 million pigs a year, exporting 85 percent for a total value of $4 billion. The country's government banned certain feed-grade antibiotics for finishing pigs in 1995. By 2000 it banned the use in weaned pigs.

According to a study by Niels Kjeldsen, department head for nutrition and reproduction with the National Committee on Pork Production in Denmark, as the amount of subtherapuetic antibiotics declined, the amount of antibiotics used for medication rose higher than ever.

"When the Danish government banned antibiotic growth promoters for finishing pigs, there were
relatively few problems for producers," says Dermot Hayes, agricultural economist, Iowa State University.

The main challenge at the finishing stage was diarrhea. This led to increased weight variability within pig groups. If a producer had an all-in/all-out system, the sick pigs would fall behind.

Producers would have to sell those pigs as lightweights. Mortality rates for finishers also jumped about 10 percent.

The big problems set in when the government banned subtherapuetic
antibiotics for weaned pigs. Overall, Kjeldsen says productivity dropped significantly (about a 5 percent
to 7 percent decline in average daily gain). This pushed producer costs higher, along with greater variability in pig size lower average daily gain and increased mortality rates.

To deal with the restrictions, Danish producers increased piglet weaning age to five weeks old.

"If you ban antibiotics in feed, you have to use more antibiotics to medicate animals," contends Hayes. "Now, producers wait for problems to develop instead of preventing them."

Today, the government monitors veterinarians to ensure they're not prescribing too many antibiotics to medicate sick pigs. If a veterinarian distributes "too many antibiotics," the government will pull his/her license.

Overall, Hayes estimates the feed-grade antibiotic ban costs Danish producers an extra $1.50 per weaned pig and another $2 per finished pig.

The question is, would the United States face similar consequences?

Hayes points out that Danish production systems are pretty uniform, whereas the United States has more variation. He does predict that without subtherapuetic antibiotics, producers without all-in/all-out production systems would be gone.

Hayes estimates it would cost more per pig if subtherapuetic antibiotics were banned, but he can't give an exact number. There are many factors to consider. For instance, U.S. producers are penalized for market weight variability, but Danish producers are not. Many U.S. producers use some continuous-flow buildings, the Danes' don't. There's also the issue of a five-week weaning age.

One U.S. producer familiar with the added costs of going antibiotic-free, is Premium Standard Farms. Today, 4 percent of the company's Missouri operations use no antibiotics. Dean Dau, PSF's director of Missouri operations, says for a pig to be included in this program, it can receive no antibiotics of any type.

Dau says that pigs from four different sow farms, totaling 5,000 sows, flow to one grow/finish operation for this program.

Health issues are the biggest challenges because you can't use some of the preventive measures that you would normally apply, he explains.

The demand may be there, but it comes at a cost. Dau estimates the
antibiotic-free program adds 15 percent to 25 percent per pig. This includes added feed costs due to poorer feed conversion, higher death loss and culls. Growth rates also aren't as good so it takes pigs longer to reach slaughter weight. Plus, when pigs use feed less efficiently you end up with more manure.

"Not being able to use antibiotics makes it more difficult to raise pigs, small or large," says Dau.

Bottom line, producing pigs without subtherapuetic antibiotics may be possible, but it's not free or easy.

Antibiotic Use Keeps Rising
The overall use of antibiotics as medication has skyrocketed since the Danish government banned subtherapeutic antibiotics in food animals. Here's a look at how the overall use of antibiotics has changed in the past six years.

1996: Medication, 48 tons; growth promoters, 106 tons.
1997: Medication, 56 tons; growth promoters, 107 tons.
1998: Medication, 49 tons; growth promoters, 56 tons.
1999: Medication, 62 tons; growth promoters, 12 tons.
2000: Medication, 80 tons; growth promoters, 0 tons.
2001: Medication, 93 tons (estimated); growth promoters, 0 tons.
Source: The National Committee For Pig Production, Denmark