Published: April 11, 2014
Amid growing international concern over the spread of superbugs on farms, slaughterhouses and supermarket meat counters, Health Canada is moving to phase out use of antibiotic growth promoters in Canadian livestock.
The drugs have been used for decades to spike the feed and water of chickens, pigs and cattle to boost their growth — “mass medication” that Canada’s top doctor, and many others, has said should stop.
In a statement Friday, Canadian drug producers say they have agreed with Health Canada “to phase out uses of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion.” The phase-out is expected to take three years.
“Successful implementation of this policy means that medically important antibiotics will only be used in food animals under the direction of a veterinarian when there is a specific disease challenge,” says the Canadian Animal Health Institute, an association representing companies that supply close to 1,600 of tonnes of antibiotics a year to Canadian farmers.
The plan is to “align to the extent possible” with recent U.S. steps to curb use of growth promoters and increase veterinary oversight of the way antimicrobials are used, says Health Canada’s “notice to stakeholders,” issued Thursday.
The Canadian government is under growing pressure to act as the U.S. and other countries move to curb antibiotic use in agriculture to try slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are showing up not only in hospitals but on farms and at meat counters. Health officials say antibiotics need to be better controlled in both health care and agriculture as the drugs can make bacteria morph into resistant strains that are increasingly difficult — sometimes impossible — to kill.
Stopping the use of growth promoters is seen as a step in the right direction.
“This could be a seismic shift,” John Prescott, a veterinarian at the University of Guelph, told Postmedia News by email on Friday. He hopes it will lead to a lot more action.
Prescott co-chaired a committee of leading Canadian veterinarians and agricultural experts that issued a scathing report in March that gave Canada failing grades for not better monitoring and controlling use of antibiotics in agriculture.
There are so many gaps, and what Prescott and doctors call “black holes,” in the current monitoring system that it is even not known how many antibiotics, also known as antimicrobials, are used in Canada. But chickens, pigs and cattle are said to be consuming far more than people.
“In Canada, more than three-quarters of antimicrobials are used in animals,” says a report issued last fall by Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s chief public health officer.
And about 90 per cent of the medication used on farms is for growth promotion or to guard against disease and infection in animals that often live in crowded pens and stalls, says the report, which objected to such use. “Using antibiotics in animals should be limited to treating infection and not for long-term mass medication for growth promotion or guarding against disease,” it says.
Jean Szkotnicki, president of the Canadian Animal Health Institute, says about 1.6 million kilograms — 1,600 metric tonnes – of antibiotics are sold in Canada each year by her association’s companies that are licensed to manufacture and distribute pharmaceuticals for animal use.
She said the companies welcome Health Canada’s move to phase out use of growth promoters and increase veterinary oversight. But she stressed in an interview that the government also needs to address the way large amount of antibiotics are being imported into Canada. The imports could account for 20 to 30 per cent of the antibiotics used on Canadian farms, she said, and are being brought in by the truckload or barrelful by farmers taking advantage of “loopholes” in Canada’s regulations.
“There is no oversight of how the drugs are used. And where there is no oversight there is room for abuse,” Szkotnicki says.
While most of imports come from U.S., she said antibiotics are also being imported in bulk from China and India under so-called “own-use” provisions that allow farmers to import drugs for use on their own farms. “It just amazes me we’ve had no action on this, it’s such a glaring gap,” Szkotnicki said.
She’s in good company. Prescott and his colleagues also want the government to “stop the importation, sale and use of antimicrobials not evaluated and registered by Health Canada.”