Dire warnings of “superbugs” are making headlines everywhere. From what I’m seeing, antimicrobial resistance has easily been the top farm and food news story so far this year. While these warnings are often poor interpretations and overly alarmist, they can’t be ignored.
Antibiotics are a lifesaver. Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have added about 10 years to the life expectancy of Canadians, according to health groups with www.antibioticawareness.ca. Food production has benefited too. It is undeniable that antibiotics have contributed to better animal welfare through disease prevention, control and treatment; safer food from healthier animals; and higher food output from better feed efficiencies and growth. Yet they have their downside too.
According to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, 23,000 people are killed by antibiotic resistant bacteria in the U.S. each year, nearly five times the number who die from food poisoning.
In the media at least, animal agriculture seems to get an unfair share of the blame. Canada’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has been repeatedly quoted as saying that three-quarters of the drugs used in Canada are for animals, with 90 per cent of on-farm use dedicated to growth promotion or disease prevention. The fact that three times more drugs are used in animals shouldn’t be surprising given that there are five times more Canadian cattle, chickens, pigs and sheep than people. Even more if we add in other domesticated animals.
Of the 90 per cent usage for growth promotion or disease prevention, fully two-thirds of antibacterial compounds applied to livestock and poultry, whether at sub-therapeutic or therapeutic levels, are not a threat to human health because they are either not used in human medicine or have a minor importance in treating human disease. So when we hear about so-called “superbugs,” or multi-resistant bacteria, these are more likely to be a result of antibiotics used in humans than those in agriculture.
Never-the-less, farming still involves antibiotic use that can potentially pose a human resistance risk. Canadian farm groups and pharmaceutical companies have not been blind to the issue. In the 1990s, Ontario introduced livestock medicine training courses to reduce the misuse of livestock drugs. In 2009, the CleanFARMS safe disposal program began collecting unused animal health products from farmers – four years ahead of a similar national collection day for all Canadians.
Animal health companies have been working on antibiotic alternatives. In the poultry industry alone, the Canadian Poultry Research Council (CPRC) has committed over $5 million, nearly half of its research funding, into antimicrobial research.
With the advent of viable alternatives, Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC) announced in December 2013 their plans to eliminate extra label use of Category 1 antibiotics in poultry production by May 15, 2014; which they have done. Steve Leech, CFC food safety, animal care and research program manager, said at the time, “the plan is a response to worldwide concerns about potential anti-microbial resistance in humans.” This category of antibiotics is heavily relied on in human medicine so resistance is an issue. CFC also wants to stop the use of over-the-counter drugs by having all antibiotic use require a veterinary prescription. And for nearly 20 years the Canadian Animal Health Institute, which represents drug manufacturers, has called on the Canadian government to halt Own Use Importation and use of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients or bulk chemicals in order to prevent unapproved drug use. Off-label use is another concern.
These same companies announced on April 11 that they are working with Heath Canada to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion as well as having veterinary oversight of these products when used in feed and water. The phase-out, expected to take three years, will apply to all poultry and livestock production in Canada. Coming on the heels of a similar announcement by U.S. drug manufacturers, this harmonization is doing what the World Health Organization has called for: taking a coordinated approach.
Here’s the point: The industry needs to stay on course. Producers need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And more than ever, they need to tell the public what they are doing on their own farms “to help make the medicine go down.”