WATCH: Antibiotics and hormones have been used for years to promote the health and growth of livestock, but they have a deadly side effect on humans. As Reid Fiest reports, Canada finally has plans to crack down on medicating meat.
The barn door opens and a feathered wave, thousands of cheeping day-old chicks, undulates away from the entrance. Outside’s a sluicing Grey County downpour but inside it’s humid, dim and a climate-controlled 30-odd degrees.
These tiny yellow pecking fluffballs have just got their first vaccines to protect them against the parasite coccidiosis, which otherwise can wreak havoc on their their intestinal tracts. This vaccine, plus extra care whose details are proprietary secrets, means about 99 per cent of them will grow to eating age without succumbing to sickness, and without the use of antibiotics.
Derek Detzler didn’t set out to raise antibiotic-free chickens.
A decade ago, he just wanted a better solution when he realized the drugs in his chicken feed were becoming less and less effective as the bugs they protected against became resistant to the drug.
“We noticed the antibiotics we were using weren’t controlling coccidiosis as well as they once did. …
“Bugs were changing. And the products were getting tired.”
What began as an exercise in trial and error became a booming business: Detzler now not only raises about 100,000 broiler chickens every nine months; he also travels the world selling alternative ways of keeping poultry healthy without keeping them on a steady diet of antimicrobials that create drug-resistant bacteria threatening both human and livestock health.
But even as a proselytizer of antibiotic-free ways of rearing chickens, he’s under no illusion the rest of the industry’s going to follow in his footsteps overnight.
“If I look at antibiotic use right now, and reduction, is it happening as fast as you, the public or even I would like? Maybe not,” he said.
“But if we were to legislate the removal of antibiotics in just chickens alone, we’d have a huge animal welfare and disease problem.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Click through for a tour inside the barn of an Ontario chicken farm.
The rest of the industry, like it or not, is now moving in that direction.
A decade after European countries and 13 years after a Health Canada committee recommended immediate action, Canada is bringing in stricter rules about dosing livestock with antibiotics.
The new regulations, the first of which come into effect at the end of next year, crack down on using antimicrobials to promote animal growth and require anyone wanting to put antibiotics in their animals’ food or water to do so under veterinary oversight.
It’ll also be tougher to bring animal antibiotics or active pharmaceutical ingredients into Canada for your own use.
Public health researchers and epidemiologists say these steps are long overdue and badly needed to combat the spectre of antimicrobial resistance as more and more bugs are becoming immune to the lifesaving drugs we use to treat them.
Animal antibiotics play a small role in superbug proliferation but they comprise a huge proportion of total antimicrobial use in Canada: About 80 per cent, according to John Prescott, a microbiologist at the University of Guelph’s pathobiology department.
Prescott knows a thing or two about medicating animals. He sits on an ad-hoc committee for antimicrobial stewardship in Canadian veterinary medicine and agriculture that evaluated Canada’s status on antimicrobial use in animals last year.
The country barely scraped by with a C-minus overall. And Canada got a failing grade when it comes to “own use importation,” when farmers and producers bring their own antibiotics into the country, unregulated.
“There was absolutely no justification for that,” Prescott said. “It sort of circumvents any regulations. … It has to stop.”
WATCH: Inside an Ontario chicken farm
The changes Canada’s now enacting are long overdue, Prescott said.
“We’re talking very, very serious stuff here,” he said.
“The big question is, ‘Is this going to make a difference?’”
To be able to determine that, Canada also needs to get better at simply measuring its use of animal antibiotics.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” Prescott said.
“If you know how much you’re using, then you can look at the impacts of interventions.”
Graphic by Leo Kavanagh
IN DEPTH: Your Food
Nobody wants to use antibiotics irresponsibly — not health officials, not the government, not those in the business of raising animals for food.
Where their views differ is on how “responsible” is defined, and what level of risk to public health is warranted in pursuit of efficient, profitable ways to farm animals that become meat that’s relatively affordable for the average Canadian.
“All antibiotic use has to be responsible use. And that’s one thing we’re working towards,” said Steve Leech, national program manager of food safety at Chicken Farmers of Canada.
For his members, that entails surveillance, education and reduction – where possible. He said chicken farmers have taken proactive steps when it comes to medicating livestock, including phasing out most prophylactic use of the drugs considered most important to human health.
“The majority of antibiotics being used in chicken production … aren’t important to human medicine.”
They’re also researching alternative ways to reduce antimicrobial use – through new vaccines, for example.
But you can’t eliminate preventive use of antibiotics entirely, Leech said. At least, not unless you want to completely change the way you raise livestock, making meat that much pricier to produce and to purchase.
Bob Lowe, who owns Bear Trap Feeders near Nanton, AB, generally sticks to treating his cattle only when they’re sick. He puts Rumensin in their feed; because of that antibiotic’s low importance to human health he’ll still be allowed to do so post-2016.
Lowe, like many in the industry, has little patience for people who’ve decided they’d rather eat animals raised in a certain way but balk at paying more for it.
“It’s safe. It’s efficient. People get to eat $5 or $6 hamburgers because we have the science,” he said.
“If we don’t have the science, the hamburger turns into an $8 or $10 hamburger.”
‘Why should we wait for a disaster?’
To get a sense of the way antimicrobial resistance can capture the public imagination, just talk to Thomas Van Boeckel, a spatial epidemiologist at Princeton University.
Van Boeckel’s paper predicting a stratospheric rise in the use of antibiotics in animals made headlines internationally when it was published earlier this year.
“It was kind of unexpected,” he admitted. “I’m very pleased by the attention it’s got.”
Van Boeckel’s paper predicts a 67 per cent increase in global antimicrobial consumption by 2030 – much of that growth in industrializing countries where the rise of a wealthier middle class has vastly increased people’s appetite for meat.
The paper estimated antimicrobial use nearly doubling in China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa within the next 15 years. With those increases, the paper predicted a corresponding rise in the risk of drug-resistant bacteria that could harm humans without reliable treatment options.
“We’re potentially facing a huge risk here. And we can’t afford to wait.”
But even Van Boeckel figures you’d need to completely rethink industrial agriculture to eradicate the need for preventive antibiotic use.
“It’s very much a systemic issue: If you put animals very close together in big, big farms, you kind of have to use antibiotics in a prophylactic way,” he said.
“We need to rethink the way we raise livestock.”
In the meantime, Canada’s left playing catch-up when it comes to more modest reforms.
Ferguson found Canada’s Public Health Agency failed to develop a pan-Canadian strategy to tackle the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance, despite discussing it since 2011.
“The information that the Agency obtains on antimicrobial use in animals is limited,” the Auditor General’s report found. In addition to missing important information on how these drugs are used on livestock, the federal government also fails to track drugs directly imported for animals.
“The Department has not strengthened existing regulations to prohibit farmers from importing unlicensed non-prescription antimicrobial drugs that are important to human medicine for use in their own animals,” the report noted.
Nor is Ottawa assessing these drugs for quality, safety or efficacy, even though, according to Ferguson’s report, Health Canada acknowledges that “the use of these antimicrobials in food-producing animals may have serious public health implications, including the development of antimicrobial resistance.”
Yet not only does Canada allow their unregulated importation, it doesn’t even know how many “own use” antibiotics or active pharmaceutical ingredients are imported for use in livestock.
According to Ferguson’s report, about 66 animal antimicrobial products used in Canada are of medium or high importance to humans and are approved for “growth promotion” in animals.
By the time Canada’s ban on the use of antibiotics for animal growth comes into force, Canada will be a full decade behind European countries who did the same in 2006.
Canada trails such countries as the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, all of which require that any antimicrobials used in animals be available by prescription only.
Quebec has started to require this, too, according to Ferguson’s report.
But it’s not just that Canada lags behind other countries: The federal government has failed to follow its own recommendations, drawn up by a Health Canada committee 13 years ago.
In 2002, a series of recommendations from a committee on Antimicrobial Resistance Policy and Science included ending the “own use” loophole that allows producers to bring their own antibiotics into the country and use them, unregulated, on their own flocks or herds.
The 2002 report also recommended making all antimicrobials “available by prescription only.”
Canada hasn’t implemented either of these. Nor do we have a comprehensive national surveillance system to figure out exactly how much antibiotics are being used for which animals, where and for what purposes, and what connection, if any, there is between these medications and drug resistance.
The Auditor General’s recommendations this spring echoed those of a dozen years ago: Crack down on “own use” importation of drugs for livestock; review the use of drugs important to humans to ensure they aren’t being overused in animals.
Health Canada assented in its formal response, committing to better oversight and safety reviews.
“Requirements for veterinary oversight over medically important antimicrobials will be mandatory” by the end of 2016,” Health Canada wrote in an email. “Importation of medically important antimicrobials will not be allowed.”
Prescott, for his part, argues it’s time for Canada to update its regulations, and “bring ourselves up to international standards and national recommendations from 15 years ago.”
“Why should we wait for a disaster?”
Eliminate antibiotic use? ‘I don’t think that’s on the table’
Like a daycare full of snot-nosed, germ-sharing toddlers.
That metaphor keeps coming up in conversation with people working in animal agriculture when they describe why they need to treat herds and flocks with antibiotics prophylactically.
“Every mother knows that, when they put their child in daycare, what happens in the first year? We have the same situation at our farm,” said Leigh Rosengren, a veterinary epidemiologist who works with the agriculture industry.
“We’re dealing with very young animals that have very naïve immune systems. And we know that in certain parts of the production chain certain farms will have disease challenges. And if we can’t go in preventively, we know we’ll have situations where we can’t protect the health and welfare of those birds.”
The spectre of virulent disease spreading among flocks makes antibiotic use mandatory in most large-scale poultry operations, she said. She argues using them prophylactically is really the most proactive responsible use often of antimicrobials.”
“It’s absolutely imperative that we in agriculture have the ability to preventively medicate birds.”
But preventive use of animal antibiotics is “not done willy-nilly,” he emphasized.
“They’ll have different protocols for different groups of cattle, based on different things like how old they are, how big they are, where they came from.”
Some calves deemed more vulnerable will get a preventive antibiotic shot when they’re young. Others will have medication mixed in with their meal.
“There is a misconception that it’s just the wild west right now and there’s no veterinary oversight,” Bergen said.
“The serious feedlots, the big ones in the cattle-feeding business, all work with specialized veterinary practices.”
Bergen estimates that the majority of cattle in Alberta feedlots get antibiotics on a prophylactic basis in their feed. And much of this, he said, is with antimicrobials that Health Canada considers to be of “medium importance.”
You could reduce or even eliminate that by switching up feeds – raising cattle on grass or hay as opposed to grain, for example. But that often means they grow more slowly and ultimately cost more money when their meat eventually reaches consumers.
“Every day that animal’s alive, it’s eating, it’s producing manure, it’s drinking water. It’s producing methane. And it costs money,” Bergen said.
“If you can reduce that interval from when it’s born to when it goes to market…it’s producing a more affordable product.”
Bergen is warily supportive of the changes Canada’s proposing.
“Making it prescription-only would be beneficial in that every producer would need to talk to a veterinarian and develop a herd health program,” Bergen said. “What would not be so great would be if your animal gets sick and your prescription has expired and your vet’s not open on Saturdays.”
He also emphasized, as many do, that even if the bulk of antibiotics in Canada go to animals, human use and overuse of antimicrobials pose a much greater risk to human health.
“The way we’re raising beef and cattle in Canada now, we’re producing a very safe, very high-quality product,” Bergen said.
“It’s far from the cheapest protein out there right now, but we’re producing it more affordably than we would otherwise.”
Prophylactic use, Rosengren said, is “often the most responsible” because it allows producers to use older drugs that are less important for human use. If they wait until animals are sick, she said, they may be forced to use drugs more likely to affect human health.
“I think anyone who appreciates agriculture and how it operates understands that we cannot eliminate the use of antibiotics. That cannot be the target,” she said.
“Using responsibly? Absolutely. Minimizing use? Absolutely. Finding alternatives? Absolutely. But eliminating? I don’t think that’s on the table.”
With a report from Global News’ Reid Fiest in Nanton, AB