Medicated meat: Canada fails to prevent overuse of antibiotics

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Health professionals have been sounding the alarm about the upswing in antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing bacteria for many years. They have recommended much tighter control on sales and use of antibiotics, to ensure that antibiotics remain effective for treating pneumonia, wound infections, post-surgical infections, sexually-transmitted diseases and other medical conditions.

In February 2015, the CBC's Sunday Morning radio program ran a segment entitled Antibiotic resistance is becoming a global health crisis, featuring an interview with Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer in the U.K. (where Prime Minister David Cameron has made combatting antibiotic overuse a national priority). In that interview Ms. Davies noted that worldwide, over 70 per cent of antibiotics are used in animals. She explained, "Short bursts of antibiotics early in life give growth promotion, both to animals and humans... You get more bang for your buck of meat." 

In Canada, federal health and agriculture agencies still permit livestock producers to import unrestricted quantities of certain antibiotics for their "own use," and give them to healthy animals to promote weight gain. This practice, now banned in European countries, means that antibiotics important in medicine are likely to become ineffective more quickly. 

If bacterial species that live within the digestive tract of farm animals are continuously exposed to antibiotics (purely for growth promotion purposes), the likelihood that these gut bacteria will become antibiotic resistant is greatly enhanced. Furthermore, considerable new evidence is now emerging that if a person handles or consumes "medicated meat," antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be introduced into their own body. 

For example, University of Manitoba scientists concluded is a 2015 study that:

"The importance of food enterococci as a reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes and the potential for their genetic transfer to human strains following consumption of uncooked or undercooked contaminated meat is underlined by this work."

If a person who has consumed meat containing antibiotic-resistant bacteria subsequently becomes ill with a medical condition that would potentially be treatable with antibiotics, the recommended treatment may be ineffective.

Yet, perhaps in deference to the financial interests of the drug and agriculture industries, Canada continues to lag behind other nations in imposing effective controls on imports and use of antibiotics in the livestock sector.

Pressure from concerned Canadian medical professionals and scientists prompted the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) to release a scathing report in June 2015 entitled Antimicrobial Resistance. The OAG report says that Health Canada:

"[H]as not strengthened existing regulations to prohibit farmers from importing unlicensed non-prescription antimicrobial drugs that are important to human medicine for use in their own animals... Furthermore, the Department allows certain antimicrobials that are used to treat serious infections in humans to be sold without a prescription for use in food animals."

The OAG noted that as early as 2002, a departmental advisory committee "recommended that Health Canada stop the importation of unlicensed veterinary antimicrobials and strengthen its control over the importation of veterinary active pharmaceutical ingredients," but "Health Canada has not done so."

Release of the OAG report led to some excellent articles, such as one by Anna Mehler Paperny for Global News entitled "Medicating meat: What's Canada's plan for animal antibiotics?" And, according to a CBC news article by Kelly Crowe, in July 2015 Health Canada agreed that the pharmaceutical industry could change the labels on antibiotics sold to farmers to remove the reference to animal growth promotion -- but could continue the practice of selling antibiotics for this intended use.

Antibiotic overuse/misuse appears to have fallen off the media landscape since last summer. It received no attention during the federal election campaign. Even the Green Party of Canada platform merely called for "strengthening the monitoring of... non-therapeutic antibiotics."

A lack of sustained attention to this issue will doubtless mean further delays. As consumers in developing countries ramp up their meat consumption, the pressure on Canadian producers to cut corners in fattening up their livestock will grow. 

Increased private sector profits in the agribusiness industry will come at the expense of increased costs and poorer patient outcomes in the public health-care sector -- outcomes that may include untreatable infections. 

Given that antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis, Canada's continuing failure to act makes it a pariah -- just as it has become on any number of environmental issues in recent years. International pressure may eventually force Canada to impose effective controls on antibiotic use. But it would be far better if federal politicians were to act sooner. The science on this issue is clear.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Government of Alberta/flickr

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