Is China setting a new standard for antibiotics-free pig farming?

Shen Jian-Ping’s 465 pigs live in roomy, temperature-controlled pens, where they eat feed enriched with nutrients and drink piped-in purified water that’s treated to remove pathogens. And unlike most of the pigs in China–a country that consumes an estimated half of the world’s pork–Shen’s aren’t fed antibiotics to either prevent disease or promote growth.
Farming approaches like this could catch on around the world, as regulators crack down on antibiotics use in food animals. China is the perfect test case, as pigs there consume 19,600 metric tons of antibiotics per year, according to statistics cited by Bloomberg. They excrete such huge quantities of antibiotics that traces of the drugs have been found in the drinking water in Shanghai.
Shen, who raises his pigs just outside of Shanghai, failed at first to raise his animals without antibiotics, losing 1,000 pigs to disease in his first year in the business, according to Bloomberg. So he called in an expert from Belgium to redesign the pigsty. Belgium is one of several European countries that banned nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics more than 15 years ago.
There is one downside to indulging pigs with clean living and antibiotics-free meals: It takes Shen’s animals about a month longer to reach their target weight of 250 pounds than it does for swine that are fed antibiotics. But he’s able to sell his meat at twice the price of regular pork, he tells Bloomberg.
“In the past, nobody would buy such expensive pork,” Shen says. “Now, kids are more likely to get sick and people are increasingly aware of the impact of antibiotics.”
In August, China’s government released an action plan aimed at tackling antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which includes phasing out the use of the drugs to promote the growth of food animals. The action mirrors a similar effort in the U.S., which is now starting to implement tough new rules on antibiotics use in farming.
The push to stop the spread of superbugs is so strong that on September 21, the United Nations’ General Assembly held a one-day meeting in New York to tackle the topic. Animal health companies Zoetis ($ZTS), Merck ($MRK) and Eli Lilly ($LLY) were among several industry participants in that meeting.
The FDA’s new rules on antibiotics use start to take effect in January and include requirements that makers of antibiotics for animals remove language indicating that the drugs can be used for nonmedical purposes.