Danish pigs are bacteria 'time bomb'
By Kjeld Hansen
Every day 35,000 live pigs roll over Denmark’s border into Germany on heavily loaded trucks, heading for countries across Europe.
More than two thirds of them are likely to be carrying infectious Livestock Associated MRSA bacteria.
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Once they arrive at their destinations they pose an immediate threat to the farmers and slaughterhouse workers who come in contact with the animals. These workers then pass the infectious bug on to their local communities.
The strain that affects pigs is known as Livestock Associated Methicillin Resistant Streptococcus Aureus (LA-MRSA). It can be passed to humans when they work directly with infected livestock – the primary transmission route – but also when they handle contaminated meat.
The disease is resistant to human medicine. While many people can carry the bacteria without getting ill, LA-MRSA can cause skin complaints as well as more serious and life-threatening infections – mainly in people with underlying conditions such as pneumonia and blood poisoning.
The Danish pig industry is the number one EU-28 exporter sending some 13 million live pigs out of the country every year. The lion’s share end up in Germany and Poland, where most are slaughtered, but some are exported further on.
As the Danish pig industry accounts for 57 percent of the total live pig exports to EU countries, it is the main source for the spread of LA-MRSA across the European Union.
How did it go so wrong?
Worse still is the fact that each year another 190,000 live Danish pigs are exported for breeding purposes. They are trucked, sailed or flown into 48 countries all over the world, where they are incorporated in the top of the breeding pyramid.
In 2015 all EU-28 countries except for Malta, Luxembourg, Cyprus and Croatia were importing pigs for breeding purposes from Denmark. Most breeders were trucked into Germany (125.529), Belgium (8.267), Hungary (7.126), Spain (6.913) and Poland (6.339).
At least 63 percent of these breeding pigs are infected with LA-MRSA, but buyers abroad are told nothing. Danish pigs are not checked for LA-MRSA before export, and Danish pig farmers have no obligation to report on LA-MRSA, when facing buyers.
How did it go so wrong?
Since LA-MRSA was first discovered in Denmark back in 2006, the influential Danish pig industry has adamantly opposed proposals aimed at cleaning up production. Instead they insisted on secrecy.
When two journalists used the Information Act in 2012 to demand food ministry data listing which farms had been infected, the pig industry blocked the disclosure by taking legal action against the authorities.
Exporting the bacteria
The battle lasted for two years and went all the way to Denmark’s highest legal authority, the Supreme Court, before this vital information was finally made public. I was one of those two journalists.
Since 2006 the LA-MRSA bug has spread rapidly, and today more than 12,000 Danish citizens are estimated to be carriers.
Since robust screening procedures were introduced five years ago, six people are known to have died; there may have been more victims before 2011. Also newborn babies have been diagnosed with the bacteria transmitted by their mothers during birth. But exports of infected pigs are still booming and will set a new record in 2016.
On top of this massive export of LA-MRSA into continental Europe, Denmark has also exported the bacteria to our northern neighbours.
A newly published study show that in two out of a three large outbreaks of LA-MRSA in Norway the bacteria came from Denmark. Norway has banned all imports of pigs just to keep the bug out. When it nevertheless came into the stables, it was due to visiting farmworkers and veterinarians from Denmark.
The solution is clear
The authorities and the pig industry in Norway united years ago to fight the bug. It has now been brought under control and is heading towards extinction.
The Danish pig industry and food authorities have dismissed the idea of doing the same. They openly claim that taking action against LA-MRSA will hurt the export industry’s profits. Therefore Danes – and the rest of the world – must learn to live with the bug.
Countries with a low rate of infection such as the UK and Norway can still save a clean and safe pig industry. But the time bomb is ticking. It only took eight years for us to go from having no infected farms to nearly 100 percent being infected.
If the borders of EU-28 is not closed to infected pigs, it will only be a matter of a few years before the entire breeding pyramid in all EU countries is infected. This will threaten all citizens. Some will die.
The solution is clear: Take action to ensure only healthy Danish pigs are allowed to cross your borders – before it is too late.
Kjeld Hansen is a Danish journalist working with Investigative Reporting Denmark.