Antibiotic growth promoters, antibiotic growth enhancers, pro-nutrients - call them what you like. Europeans within theEU are moving toward banning them in livestock feeds.

The Swedes did so 12 years ago. From March 1998, the Danes are to "fine" their pig producers about one cent a pound deadweight if they include any others outside avoparcin and virginiamycin, which are already blanket-banned. Now British supermarkets are increasingly refusing to buy pork which has been routinely fed on antibiotic growth promoters.

Of course, this is illogical. But more and more European consumers are now hypersensitive over meat safety and are not convinced we aren't pushing farm livestock too hard anyway.

Americans are (probably justifiably) upset that Europe will not accept your hormone-treated beef.

Friends, this is not a cunning defensive marketing stratagem - our consumers wouldn't accept it as a free gift if they knew the beef was raised on hormonized chow. So forget it. The prejudice is now too entrenched. And antibiotic-treated pork looks like joining the club, despite a determined rearguard action which states, factually, the following:

Case For Antibiotics * The antibiotic growth promoters permitted are proven to be safe; there is no evidence of residues causing resistance. Any that have, have been expurgated.

* Permitted antibiotics have been in use for decades with no known ill effects.

* The pigs benefit from antibiotics. When Sweden banned them, postweaning mortality rose 1.6%c and scouring rose from 2% to 8% (now 5%).

* The environment benefits from antibiotics. Improved digestibility of feed reduces slurry output by 12 gal./pig. In the EU, 15 countries have determined that from pigs alone, antibiotic growth promoters reduced nitrogen output by over 58,000 tons/year, as well as 18,500 tons phosphates/year.

* The consumer benefits. Should antibiotic growth promoters be banned in Britain, production costs for pork would rise by 8.2%. Who pays? The consumer in the end. The producer does to start with, then it tends to filter through.

* The hog farmer benefits. With no in-feed antibiotics, the feed conversion rate worsens by 6%, growth rate slows by 5% and veterinary costs rise by 4%.

But it all looks to be of no avail; the public has convinced itself that growth promoters are bad things and that they should go, just like hormones and PST.

Surviving A Ban Can we survive a ban on antibiotic growth enhancers?

Asked to cover this subject at a conference in 1997*, and again at a think-tank in 1998, I have researched the situation in depth. Here are my findings. Sure, they are just one observer's conclusions, but I don't think they are far out. I have studied what happened in Sweden and what their countermeasures were and what they cost.

In Britain, I have five clients who voluntarily gave up antibiotics in feed eight years ago to secure a niche market in "antibiotic-free pork." Three have survived, getting only an 8% premium over average returns. What did they do and what did it cost?

1) Doing nothing is unaffordable. Removing antibiotics saves 1.25% of your feed costs. Doing nothing to replace them increases total costs by 5-15% and can raise veterinary/medical costs by 10-42%.

These two alone would reduce net margin/pig in UK by 36-48% (January 1998).

2) Countermeasures. Tables 1 and 2 give a list of findings. All are solutions that have been tried and which, on the whole, do work. No hog farmer can do all of them, especially at once. Several of the findings in the two tables you can do virtually tomorrow. The other items will take longer, because they are alterations to management systems and housing.

The cost column is based on UK costs per pig during late 1997. I guess that in the U.S., these costs will be 10-17% cheaper, especially in the replacement drug/nutrient area.

The costs are confused by the items marked "now." These are ideas you should be doing now anyway. On the farms studied, these ideas were hurried into practice because of suddenly being unable to use antibiotic growth promoters.

In theory, on the "ideal farm," these "now" ideas can be deducted from the overall cost of countermeasures. This is important because on the less-than-ideal farm, the cost of mitigating the damage caused by not using antibiotic growth promoters will be much higher. You have more to lose.

And, there's no getting away from the fact that management changes, not feed changes, force survivors of such a ban to assimilate the bulk of the costs. These changes will cost you between 5-8% more to maintain the output formerly provided by the withdrawn growth promoters.

Worth Doing But it must be worth doing because taking no action will cost at least the lower level of 5% and maybe as much as 15%. I know of one producer who just sat tight and did nothing who suffered $15/pig drop in income when his breakeven floor was $11.55. He went out quite quickly.

Will it happen in the U.S.? I hope not. But if it ever does, learn from our hard-won experiences. Better still, start down the defensive road I've described now, as it is bound to pay in the end, antibiotics or no.

* For John Gadd's full, 14-page paper on surviving a ban on antibiotic growth promoters, consult Biotechnology in the Feed Industry (1997), eds Lyons and Jacques, Nottingham University Press, Nottingham NG11 0AX, UK.