Health Canada’s move to end the use of “medically important” antibiotics as growth promotants won’t hurt livestock production, say an Alberta producer and industry experts.
“There won’t be as much restriction as we first thought,” said Camrose rancher and Canadian Cattle Association president Dave Solverson.
“(But) there will be a little more consultation with veterinarians on the use of antibiotics.”
The North American livestock industry has been a heavy user of a class of antibiotics called antimicrobials, notably ionophores and tetracycline. The former is not used in human medicine and is exempt from the new rules, but tetracycline is a key drug used to treat pneumonia, other respiratory tract infections, and other conditions. It is feared — although the science is not definitive — that using human medicinal drugs for raising livestock is hastening the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Solverson has used tetracycline to treat sick cattle, but not as a growth promotant.
“We don’t use it mixed in with feed or anything,” he said. “Very few producers do.”
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The new Health Canada order, to be phased in over three years, will still allow a veterinarian to prescribe drugs used in human medicine for treatment of sick animals.
Solverson said he and his brother Ken have only used tetracycline when necessary at Woodwind Ranch, an 800-head cow-calf operation and small feedlot.
“We’ve always been very careful for drug withdrawal, but we’ll have to step up the documentation of which animals are treated at any stage of their life,” he said. “Other than that, I don’t believe the products we use are on any of these lists.”
The Solversons will still be able to use Rumensin, a feed supplement made by Elanco that, according to the company, reduces a cow’s feed requirements by five to 10 per cent while maintaining body weight. But because the additive is an ionophore, “there are no concerns about resistance for human health,” said Solverson.
When it comes to poultry, antibiotics aren’t used as growth promotants, said Steve Leech, national program manager with the Chicken Farmers of Canada.
“There are antibiotics used in poultry feed in Canada, but there are some differences between producers and between provinces,” he said.
“Antibiotics can and are used for reasons of prevention and therapy and can be administered through the feed. The decision to use them is between the veterinarian, the feed mill, and the producer.”
Most of the antibiotics used in chicken feed in this country are so-called Category Four antibiotics, which are not used for human health. As of May 15, chicken producers won’t be able to use Category One antibiotics for preventive use. The ban is specifically directed at Cetiofur, which is used at the hatchery level for broiler chicks. Another Category One drug used in hatcheries is Betrol, but it is rarely used in poultry production. The directive will be monitored and enforced through the on-farm food safety program audit.
“There will be impacts on all the stakeholders, but the only place there will be reduced use is at the hatchery level,” said Leech.
The swine sector has been reducing “mass medication” for decades, said Pete Pawluk, a swine veterinarian with Swine Health Centre in Lethbridge.
“Improved farming practices, management, health and biosecurity have reduced the need for antibiotics,” Pawluk said. “We’re in the process of benchmarking these in southern Alberta and we’ll know more by the end of the year. This is the first step in reducing antibiotics.”
Pawluk supports the Health Canada directive and questions whether claims made about growth promotant are even true.
“Nothing promotes growth better than good health, clean water and nutritious feed,” he said. “To rely on drugs or to have a claim from a drug to do the same thing is probably not true. To measure it is very, very difficult.”
Category One antibiotics, which are used in human medicine, are not fed to swine on a regular basis nor used as growth promotants, he said.
However, all other categories of antibiotics can still be added to feed and more veterinary oversight of their use would be a good thing, said Pawluk.
“Right now, a farmer could walk into a store and buy a pallet of antibiotics, without any questions asked,” he said. “We can certainly do better and we’re working on it.”
Pig producers are increasingly questioning both the wisdom of using antibiotics and whether they provide a benefit that justifies their cost, he said.
While control, production, distribution, and use of veterinary drugs in Canada is governed by the provinces, the new directive (which covers about 140 veterinary products) could hasten a shift in attitudes. Health Canada is following in the footsteps of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which was ridiculed by many last year when it issued a “voluntary ban” on this type of antibiotic use. However, virtually all large feed manufacturers are reported to have adhered to it.
The Canadian Animal Health Institute, which helped Health Canada develop the directive, is firmly behind the move.
“We’ve all seen reports from the medical community highly critical of agriculture’s use of these products,” said Jean Szkotnicki, president of the Guelph-based institute.
“This is about ensuring consumer confidence in the products our producers are producing, and we do have high-quality, safe products.”
Cattle producers also “want to make sure that there is not resistance developing to those drugs because of the way they’re used in cattle,” said Reynold Bergen, science director with the Beef Research Centre.
“The important thing to note here is that not all antimicrobials are the same,” said Bergen. “Some are important in human medicine and some of them aren’t.”
The beef industry’s current use of growth promotants has little effect on antibiotic resistance, he added, citing research by the Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance.
“There are very low levels of resistance in cattle,” he said. “Not only that, it’s not increasing and there’s no multi-drug resistance either.”