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The European Commission wants to ban or significantly reduce regular use of antibiotics in animal farming. Such a ban could have serious welfare implications for pigs because the young suffer considerably from bacterial infections, most notably immediately after weaning. Under commercial conditions, pig losses may be as high as 17% and many of these result from gut infections and diarrhoea. Antibiotics are commonly used in an attempt to reduce these losses, but they may not be the best way of tackling the problem as there are good reasons for not using them. One Specific Targeted Research Project under the Sixth Framework Programme is looking at alternative ways of improving the health of young pigs, drawing on 'natural resources' such as Chinese medicine and probiotics.


It is a tough life for a young pig on a modern commercial farm. Taken away from its mother after three to four weeks, it has to learn rapidly to eat new types of food and to fend for itself in a pen full of 'strange' piglets. Scientists know this early weaning is partly responsible for high infection and mortality rates immediately after weaning. The piglet's immune system is not properly de-veloped - in nature, it would receive antibodies and antibacterial compounds from the sow's milk. The community of harmless bacteria has not been properly established in the intestine, opening up the opportunity for organisms such as Escerichia coli and salmonella to take over. Without lactic acid from milk, stomach acid levels are reduced making digestion difficult and enabling pathogenic bacteria to establish themselves more easily. In addition, many piglets are unable to feed themselves properly for several days, and become malnourished.

A team comprising 11 academic institutions and two small companies hopes to improve this situation without using antibiotics. The group combines European expertise on gut health, alternative medicines, and pig husbandry. Antibiotics create problems of their own, adversely affecting natural gut flora and promoting development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Four alternatives will be investigated during the three year project: antimicrobial plant extracts, bacterially fermented liquid feed, food to encourage healthy gut bacteria (pre-biotics), and altered husbandry methods. First, novel feeds will be tested in the laboratory for any effects on intestinal cells. Then they will be trialled on piglets to establish whether they are beneficial to gut health and immunity. Finally, promising strategies will be tested under commercial rearing conditions.


Nearly 40 plant extracts are available that could supplement the benefits of mother's milk in newly weaned pigs. Some offer antimicrobial action, such as thyme, or stimulate the immune system, like Echinacea. Others are less familiar, like the Tibet bitterroot borrowed from Chinese medicine - Chinese scientists are subcontractors in the consortium.

Feed that has been fermented with lactic acid bacteria may provide some protection for young pigs. Apart from adding healthy bacteria to their guts, the fermented food contains acid which inhibits the growth of salmonella. Salmonella contamination of pork is a big problem in the EU. Pre-biotics added to the feed may encourage the development of an environment within the intestine that promotes the growth of harmless bacteria, thus excluding those with the potential to cause disease.

This project involves the first trials of a range of novel factors that may affect disease susceptibility in young pigs. Its study of the effect of pre- and pro-biotic food on immune capabilities of the gut could greatly inform research on diet and gut health for humans. Results will help pig farmers cut antibiotic use without compromising welfare, and may assist in reducing the pathogen burden of pig meat, adding a double competitive edge to European pork.

List of Partners

  • University of Bristol (UK)
  • Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (France)
  • Wageningen University (The Netherlands)
  • Instituto Nazionale di Ricerca per gli Alimenti e la Nutrizione (Italy)
  • DIPROVAL - Bologna (Italy)
  • University of Plymouth (UK)
  • FBN-Rostock (Germany)
  • Institute for Animal Science and Health, Lelystad (The Netherlands)
  • Institut de Recerca I Tecnologia AgroalimentÓries (Spain)
  • Institute of Biology and Animal Nutrition (Romania)
  • UniversitÓ di Bologna (Italy)
  • Otto-van-Guericke University, Magdeburg (Germany)
  • Archimex (France)
  • European Algae Study Centre (CEVA)
Full title:
Development of natural alternatives to anti-microbials for the control of pig health and promotion of performance
Contract n░:
Project co-ordinator:
Christopher R. Stokes, University of Bristol, Department of Clinical Veterinary Science,
EC Scientific Officer:
Judit Krommer,
EU contribution:
€ 4.0M
Specific Targeted Research Project

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Last update: 06 December 2007 | Top