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Environment

Berlin targets superbugs in animal feed

Meat industry lobbyists are opposing German government plans to combat drug-resistent animal germs that threaten humans. The changes may lead to major changes in the way farm animals are kept.

The rustic idyll of the traditional German farm has little in common with the view inside today's industrial meat production process. Within the industry's gargantuan stalls, chickens, turkey, pigs, or cows jostle constantly for space. As the industry marches toward ever-larger meat production facilities, it is no longer a rarity to find stalls with more than 100,000 chickens or a few thousand pigs.

These animals will be brought to slaughter as quickly as possible. The average chicken now lives 32 days, and a pig sometimes just four months. Meat producers that refuse to adopt these methods can expect to lose the brutal race for low-priced meat.

Antibiotics make it possible

Interior of a piggery with high stock density

Such high stock density is impossible without antibiotics

Farmers generally give antibiotics to animals being raised for industrially produced bargain meat in order to keep them healthy. If one animal becomes sick, it threatens the health of the entire flock or herd, which is raised together in a small space. But by attempting to prevent illness, this practice has actually led to a bigger problem for humans: antibiotic resistant germs.

If one of these germs enters the body through an open cut, it can lead to an untreatable infection that can prove fatal.

Shrinkwrapped and de-feathered chickens on sale at a local market. Photo: Frank May dpa

32 days old: chickens on sale

Every year, 25,000 people die from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant germs in the European Union, according to Marc Spencer, the director of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

Physicians and consumer protection experts have long been warning about the dangers of the massive use of antibiotics in animal feed. The NGO Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) showed in one study that more than half of chicken products in German supermarkets contain antibiotic-resistant germs.

Nevertheless, Thomas Janning from the German Poultry Association warns consumers not to panic.

"Just because antibiotic-resistant germs are present in chicken meat doesn't say anything at all about the health risk [it poses to] consumers," said Janning.

How to protect against infection

But since consumers cannot detect the presence of antibiotic-resistant germs in meat, they should pay attention to hygiene in the kitchen, says Armin Valet from the Consumer Advice Center in Hamburg.

Valet advises consumers to cook meat at a temperature of over 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to kill the germs. Consuming the meat after that should be fine, he says.

Consumers also shouldn't use the same cutting board for both meat and other products, according to Valet. Using separate cutting boards can prevent the spread of germs.

Witte in a laboratory examining a sample Photo: Peter Förster dpa/lah

Witte says mass treatment with antibiotics should be banned

The best way to avoid these resistant germs, according to Valet, is to buy organic meat or meat from animals that were raised under conditions where they had more space. Such animals may also have been treated with antibiotics, but only in individual cases. Studies will show that this meat doesn't contain the resistant germs, says microbiologist Dr. Wolfgang Witte from the Robert Koch Institute.

Competing interests

Because of the dangers, doctors, conservationists and consumer protection experts are calling for a rethinking of the use of animal feed.

"The only conclusion can be to keep and feed animals in such a way that bans the use of antibiotics from the very beginning," said Witte.

Implementing a ban would have far-reaching consequences, he says. Animals could no longer be kept in such small pens with thousands of other animals. The meat industry would have to give them much more space.

Agriculture and meat industry lobbyists are resistant to the idea because the mass production of meat would no longer be possible.

After wrestling with the topic for a long time, politicians have finally reacted. The cabinet has now decided that the use of antibiotics in animal feed must be reduced significantly.

The main issue is establishing a database to oversee the distribution of antibiotics. Livestock owners and meat farmers will have to document this distribution more comprehensively in the future. The measure also seeks to restrict the use of specific drugs.

At the same time, the supervising authorities in each German state are receiving more inspection power than ever. The exchange of information between the agencies is also supposed to be improved.

"We can significantly reduce the use of antibiotics in Germany within a few years if the states and the federal authorities pull together," said German Minister of Consumer Affairs Ilse Aigner. The law is scheduled to take effect in spring 2013.

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