Hot potato The federal government licenses the drugs, but has no authority to control how they are used
Canadian livestock producers who fear a U.S.-style clampdown on their use of antibiotics don’t have to worry — for now.
Ottawa is sidestepping the issue and most provinces are only reluctantly beginning to fill the regulatory gap. But tougher rules that would more closely monitor, and possibly restrict, antibiotic use in livestock operations appear to be coming as concerns about antibiotic resistance grow.
“It’s kind of slowly been building, it’s one of those things like global warming,” said Dr. Glen Duizer, animal health veterinarian for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI). “It’s big and it’s been slow moving, but now it’s at a stage where for many of us… it has become much more significant in our minds.”
The country’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Brian Evans, recently issued a plea to veterinarians urging them “to be vigilant in their oversight and to prescribe antimicrobials judiciously.”
The U.S. has already moved past the warning stage. The Food and Drug Administration recently banned certain types of antibiotics, such as cephalosporins, for non-medical uses in livestock. And earlier this year, a New York judge, citing the mounting threat of “superbugs,” ordered the agency to withdraw approval for non-therapeutic use of antibiotics — specifically in animal feed — unless drug makers can prove the practice is safe.
But currently, the debate north of the border is on which level of government should be in charge of the issue.
While the federal government monitors antimicrobial resistance, it does not control production, distribution, or use of veterinary drugs in Canada. That role belongs to the provinces.
“There certainly can be a gap,” said Dr. Marc Philippot, president of the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association. “If there is a concern with a certain drug, which level of government is responsible for that?”
And concerns are mounting. The Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance, which collects samples from abattoirs and on-farm animals, has found a growing number of drug-resistant pathogens in Canada’s food-animal sector, Evans noted in his call to vets to write fewer prescriptions.
Philippot said Ottawa should be taking the lead on this issue but since it isn’t, the provinces will have to step in.
The biggest step taken so far may be in Newfoundland, the country’s smallest livestock producer.
“People agree there is a concern over increased resistance, and a lack of new products coming out,” said Dr. Hugh Whitney, that province’s chief veterinary officer.
Newfoundland’s greatest concern was the sale of over-the-counter injectables and water-soluble medications, which could be bought and used without the advice of a veterinarian.
“Were these drugs even necessary? Who knew?” said Whitney. “So we just made the decision that there was something we could do, and the decision was to restrict the use to veterinary prescription alone.”
A federal committee recommended such a move a decade ago.
Because many of these drugs do not require a prescription from a vet to obtain, there is no way of monitoring how much or how often they are used. The available estimates for the U.S. vary widely between 50 per cent and 87 per cent of the antibiotics sold annually in that country are for growth promotion and prophylaxis in swine, cattle and poultry.
“In Canada, we do not know the quantities of various antimicrobials used in animals, and we do not collect use data in a manner that helps to further our understanding of resistance and its impact on human health,” says the report Uses of Antimicrobials in Food Animals in Canada: Impact on Resistance and Human Health.
The committee behind this report recommended that be changed, although it acknowledged that forcing producers to obtain a prescription would increase costs and would meet with resistance.
But in the end, it may be consumers — not government — who drive changes.
“Certainly at this point, we are trying to deal with public perceptions,” said Jake Wiebe, president of Manitoba Chicken Producers. “If there are ways we can cut back on antibiotics, just so they are at ease, we would gladly do it.”
Like most poultry producers in the province, Wiebe keeps his flock healthy with medicated feed, but makes the switch to unmedicated feed 10 days before the birds are processed. He’s not required by law to do that, but Wiebe said producers want to allay consumer concerns.
“We’re trying to manage it in a controlled fashion, and we’re trying to let people know we are working on this,” he said. “If something better is out there, we’re certainly not averse to change.”
Wiebe said his industry is getting a bad rap on this issue, and many claims linking subtherapeutic antibiotic use to drug-resistant diseases are not based on good science.
Moves to limit antibiotic use in the U.S. also has implications for livestock producers here who sell in American markets.
“We are certainly monitoring all regulator activities related to agricultural practices in the United States,” said Dawn Lawrence of the Canadian Pork Council. “We will have to look at trade implications as we go along.”
Describing American policies on antimicrobials as slightly ahead of those in Canada, Lawrence said it’s hard to predict exactly what stricter U.S. regulations might mean.
That may be in part because there are no hard numbers on antibiotic use in Canadian swine production.
“We cannot at this point put a number or identify a frequency of how commonly antibiotics are used as a growth promotant,” said Lawrence. “But certainly, antimicrobials are an important tool in our tool box, and producers and veterinarians want to ensure that their effectiveness remains in place for as long as possible.”
But how to achieve that remains an open question.
“It’s not just food we have to consider. We have to think about what is used in our pets, what gets out into the environment and what gets used by us,” said Duizer. “It’s not simple… it’s a big and complex issue.