Canadian health and veterinary authorities have been discussing the virtually unregulated and poorly monitored antibiotic use in farm animals since the late 1990s.
Now Health Canada is starting to do something about it.
In new protocols to be phased in over the next three years, producers wishing to use antibiotics considered important to human medicine will have to obtain a veterinarian’s prescription to get them.
There will also be restrictions on how these drugs are used. For example, beginning this month, poultry producers won’t be able to use certain antibiotics as preventive therapy, a change that will predominantly affect hatchery producers.
Drug companies will be asked to no longer market medically important antimicrobials for growth promotion and there will be continued development of “options to strengthen the veterinary oversight of antimicrobial use in food animals,” a Health Canada notice says.
If the recommendations of the Ad-Hoc Committee for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Canadian Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine are followed, it is likely farmers will see more restrictions on own-use importation and off-label use.
The committee of academics, veterinarians and industry representatives petitioned Canada’s auditor general in 2012 citing the rising threat of antibiotic resistance “as a result of inadequate regulations, and the impact of poor regulatory oversight on sustainable development, including the protection of the health of Canadians, through failure also to meet international obligations in the form of current international standards.”
The petition highlights the hodgepodge of regulatory oversight of antibiotic use on the farm, with federal authorities regulating their approval and monitoring for food residues, and provincial authorities regulating their sale. On the federal side alone, the oversight over antimicrobial use in farm animals involves Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canada Border Services Agency.
The ad hoc committee’s priority recommendations were to develop a policy on extra label use and to require producers importing for their own use to obtain a permit.
If you have been following what’s been going on in the U.S., which is still the largest market for Canadian livestock, efforts are underway to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in livestock production altogether, while requiring veterinary prescriptions for antibiotics to treat animals that are sick.
Some farmers will protest the push to give veterinarians more control over their access to these drugs as an imposition and unnecessary cost. Others will point to the need for more judicious use of antibiotics in human medicine.
But Canada can’t afford to lag on this issue. One could argue the slow pace of change in this country exposes farmers here to even greater costs.
Firstly, there is the alarming surge in superbugs, a phenomenon the World Health Organization has warned raises the spectre of common infections becoming untreatable.
“The world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director general for health security in a Reuters report. In many countries commonly prescribed drugs such as fluoroquinolones are no longer effective for more than half of the patients, the WHO says.
Aside from the implications for human health, as this resistance problem grows, the likelihood rises that these antimicrobials will lose their effectiveness on the farm as well.
Secondly, if producers in major importing countries transition away from their use, it is likely they will require the same of foreign producers competing in their marketplace.
Thirdly, antibiotics — both in human and animal health — have been so remarkably effective, there hasn’t been much interest in finding alternatives, either by preventing illness and infection, or managing it when it occurs. At least not until now.
Producers in the European Union, for example, were once among the highest users of antimicrobials in animal industry. Now, they are among the lowest, with producers in some countries on the verge of phasing out their use altogether.
The Netherlands is on track to achieve a 70 per cent reduction in use by 2015. It was accomplished by a multi-faceted policy that involved legislation, proactive farm leadership and policies aimed at helping producers maintain productivity through alternative herd management.
The question isn’t whether livestock producers in Canada can afford to make these changes. Rather, can they afford not to?