A2002 Health Canada report mapped out a plan for veterinary medicines that would have solved many of the current controversies about antibiotic resistance in meat products, says John Prescott, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph.
“This was an absolutely outstanding report which involved considerable work and effort from many people across the country,” he told a hearing by the Commons Health Committee on the use of antibiotics in treating livestock. It made 38 recommendations, most of which haven’t actually been implemented.
“These recommendations included key things like making antibiotics prescription only, getting rid of own-use and active pharmaceutical ingredients, importation issues, the ability to prohibit extra-label use on antibiotics if there are important public health issues and so on,” he said.
He urged the committee to take another look at that report and “to try to establish national priority and one person in charge of the issue of antibiotic resistance in animals and its relationship to humans, as well as antibiotic resistance in human pathogens generally.
“Currently, I think nobody really in the federal government is in charge,” he stated. “Just the resistant bacteria are in charge.”
The driver for the hearing was a CBC “Marketplace” report on the presence of drug residues in chicken. Mike Dungate, executive director, Chicken Farmers of Canada, said the show was intended to be sensational.
“It painted an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the Canadian chicken industry, production, and antibiotic use and resistance. It certainly did not provide a factual or a scientific basis from which government can or should derive policy or options.”
The show tried to suggest human antibiotic resistance was caused by eating chicken, but it offered no proof, he said. It contended that antibiotic use by farmers was causing problems for human health.
“The CBC test results found resistance to antibiotics that are not used in poultry production in Canada. They found resistance to more antibiotics than would be given to a chicken flock.”
As well, “all chicken farmers are required by federal regulation to report on the use of antibiotics before the flock is sent to a processing plant,” he said. “CFIA veterinarians verify these reports and determine that antibiotics are used properly. Any chicken failing this investigation is not allowed to enter the food system.”
Chicken farmers use Health Canada-approved antibiotics “to prevent disease and potential food safety problems,” he said. “Antibiotics play a key role in ensuring that only healthy birds enter the food chain for consumption.” A large amount of the drugs used in poultry production are of little importance for human medicine.
Jean Szkotnicki, president of the Canadian Animal Health Institute, which represents the drug makers, said many people misunderstand the purpose of veterinary medicines because they are usually administered through feed or water. “This in many cases is the only practical way to administer medication to large herds and flocks.
“Due to concerns about antimicrobial resistance, I would point out that the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has developed prudent use guidelines for the use of antimicrobials in food animal medicine. It is very much a concern of the veterinary profession.”
Health Canada’s Veterinary Drugs Directorate monitors for adverse reactions among consumers and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency “tests to ensure no harmful residues enter the food chain.”
Many of the companies that manufacture veterinary medicines also make human ones. Total sales for livestock treatments in 2009 amounted to $590 million compared to $21 billion on the human side.
A study in 2000 by a group of medical experts “estimated that the animal contribution to overall human (antibiotic) resistance problem is less than four per cent,” she said. “That small proportion was attributed to the transfer of resistant bacteria from food to humans following use of antimicrobials in food animal production.”