Health Canada’s quiet move to end use of antibiotics to fatten up animals

A cow can get penicillin without a prescription in most parts of Canada, unlike humans who have to see their doctors first.

kelly-croweFarmers can simply go down to the local farm supply store and buy tetracycline and many other antibiotics over the counter.

And the animals don’t have to be sick. Cattle, chickens, turkeys and pigs take antibiotics to prevent them from becoming infected.

For animal producers, antibiotics are an important management tool to keep their herds and flocks healthy and profitable. It’s estimated that up to 80 per cent of the world’s antibiotics are used in agriculture.

But every time a bug comes up against a drug, whether it’s in humans or animals, that’s a fresh opportunity to evolve a new defence.

And the links are now clear. Antibiotic use on farms is creating superbug infections in humans.

The World Health Organization warns that unless antibiotic use is reined in, the world is headed for a dystopian future where routine infections are deadly. So it’s a surprise to learn that Canada has no coordinated national system to control antibiotics in agriculture.

There is no way of monitoring what drugs are being used and how farmers are using them, and no reliable statistical data on the volumes of antibiotics being given to food animals.

I discovered all of that as I was researching what seemed to be a simple good news story: that Health Canada is about to stop letting farmers use antibiotics as growth promoters.

On the surface, it sounded like a breakthrough. Public health advocates have been calling for an end to the use of antibiotics for growth promotion for years. It’s a practice that has been banned in most of Europe.

ab.res.prudent.may.14But I soon learned that many believe the change won’t significantly reduce the amount of antibiotics used on Canadian farms. That’s because it’s estimated that most of the antibiotics in feed are intended for disease prevention. And that use will still be permitted.

It was curious how quietly this change came about. No press release, no news conference or ministerial announcement. Just a short “Notice to Stakeholders” posted on the Health Canada Veterinary Drug Directorate website.

But one of the biggest stakeholders — the animal drug manufacturers  — didn’t need any notice, because the whole thing was their idea, according to Jean Szkotnicki from the Canadian Animal Health Institute, the trade association that represents the drug companies who make and sell antibiotics for animals.

In March, the trade association approached Health Canada with an offer to change the labels on 140 animal antibiotics that are the same or similar to human drugs.

They offered to remove claims for growth promotion, to bring their products in line with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Health Canada apparently agreed. But what does it mean in practice?

When I tried to answer that question, I ran up against the wall that is Health Canada media relations.

Health Canada won’t let me talk directly to a policy maker, so, in what has become a familiar pattern, a media person emailed me a short written response to my initial inquiries, raising more questions than it answered:

“The removal of the production claims from the labels is anticipated to eliminate such use of the relevant antimicrobials whereas other claims which are considered prudent and necessary for animal health would remain.”

Translation (after making a lot of calls to veterinarians and others outside of government): this change is unlikely to substantially reduce the amount of antibiotics used in food animals, according to people who will be involved in implementing these changes.

“We’re not going to achieve anything if we stop at the growth promotion discussion,” says Dr. Greg Douglas, Ontario’s chief veterinarian.

“In other jurisdictions, they’ve found that, the drugs are not used for growth promotion, wink, wink, they’re used for disease prevention.”