The European Union (EU) has set the cat among the pigeons by banning six of the leading in-feed antibiotic growth promoters.

The antibiotics are tylosin, virginiamycin, spiromycin, zinc bacitracin, carbadox and olaquindox. The ban became effective Jan. 1, 1999 with final effect in June.

Is it a decision based on facts? No. Is it a decision based on science? No. So why has it happened? Why are we committing in-feed antibiotic suicide?

There are several reasons, but the concern for in-feed antibiotics causing resistance in humans and the potential hazard of residues in meat are the driving force behind this ban.

There is no scientific evidence that indicates danger to the public from resistance or residues from licensed antibiotic digestive enhancers. Why is the consumer still anxious?

Until recently the consumer never was presented the facts. It's a case of "too little, too late." The attitude has been, "Don't mention in-feed antibiotics. It will only scare them."

This hasn't worked. We should have started sooner and invested money in education. And, we should have made clear what measures are already in place to monitor residues or resistance. And finally, we should have communicated what removing the antibiotics would cost in terms of pig welfare, more expensive meat, increased pollution and higher transport costs.

In Europe it has become an "accepted truth" that "over-use of growth promoters in farming has led to an increase in resistance in human medicine."

A number of points contradict this belief. Popular conception is that the rise in food poisoning is due to antibiotic resistance. In fact, none of the recent "headline" incidents (salmonella infection in eggs, E. coli 0157 in older people, listeriosis in cottage cheese) resulted from resistant bacteria.

The principal resistant pathogen linked to food is salmonella typhimurium DT 104, which is resistant to several antibiotics.

None of these antibiotics are licensed for digestive enhancement in the EU.

The antibiotic virginiamycin has been banned due to concerns of initiating resistance to a valuable antibiotic; dalfoquistin-quinopristin (sometimes called pristinamycin) being held in reserve in medical practice "largely due to misuse to overuse (of antibiotics) in human medicine." (World Health Organization report, December 1977.) Virginiamycin is very similar to it.

Is this step needed?

It doesn't seem so. Following 30 years of world-wide use it's reasonable to ask why resistance to virginiamycin has never happened? Why should the veterinary and farming communities forego the use of a valuable product to help the medical profession out of a problem of their own making?

There is also no scientific evidence for banning licensed digestive enhancers in the EU on the grounds that they give rise to carcass residues.

There has been surveillance operated by certain EU countries for many years. Maximum residue limits (MRLs) have been set which are so low that, for example, the MRL for penicillin in milk means that the standard medical dose is equal to the adult consumption of milk for 500 years, and in steak you would have to eat 10 tons of meat to ingest one therapeutic antibiotic dose.

Despite these low thresholds, positives among 35,606 samples have only revealed that 0.31% exceeded them, usually only marginally in these phenomenally low safety margins. None of these produced antimicrobial resistance in the flora of consumers.

Politicians are aware that the public is emotionally involved and largely is not aware of the facts. Many politicians are not aware of the facts either, or ignore them.

Expediency spills over into national self-interest. Danish politicians have already imposed digestive-enhancer restrictions. This seems to be a smoke screen to direct attention away from the fact that only 10-15% of Danish farmers can fully meet the restrictions which the British, a major market for Danish pork, have now imposed on 100% of their own pig farmers over welfare (no sow stalls, no weaning under 21 days, etc.) and food safety (in the train of BSE; no meat and bonemeal permitted, etc.).

The Swedes banned antibiotic digestive enhancers 12 years ago. Their motive was to produce pork of such high quality that they could export it easily, but since joining the EU they have been unable to compete on price, partly because their costs rose after in-feed antibiotics were banned.

Another suggestion is that by removing antibiotic digestive enhancers the 1 million extra tons of grain needed to produce pork - irrespective of poultry - will quarry into the EU grain mountain.

But why should two thirds of the EU accede to a ban? Could it be in some people's minds that by banning antibiotic fed pork and poultry meat, future cheaper imports from the U.S. and elsewhere would be excluded, or made less competitive if they did meet the criteria we like applying to ourselves?