Ron Doering, former president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and now a food law lawyer in Ottawa, has had an epiphany on the question of antibiotic safety in meat.
It’s not that he necessarily disputes scientific conclusions that meat from antibiotic treated animals is safe if properly done.
And he long has been an advocate of “science-based” food rules and continues to hold that view about genetically modified material in food, opposing the call for mandatory labelling.
Doering once was chair of an advisory committee to the agriculture minister on the CFIA where he expounded these views.
But he got to thinking when his wife and daughter began to question his assertion that science and testing will ensure use of antibiotics in Canada’s meat industry is safe. If that is the case, why are more products on grocery shelves being labelled ‘antibiotic-free’, they wondered?
Doering wondered too, even as the poultry, hog and beef industries continue to insist the retail product is safe because with proper use, there are no drug residues at the time of slaughter.
Media and consumer investigations have shown otherwise in some cases and opponents argue that antibiotic residues in some products are resulting in effects on consumers, particularly children.
In response, many industry groups have created voluntary codes of practice and guidelines.
It is not always working to placate skeptical consumers, driven more by intuition than dense scientific papers, nor some trading partners that refuse to accept drug-injected animals.
Increasing numbers of meat companies are selling their product as sourced from animals not given antibiotics and consumers are flocking to those products.
Ironically, Doering was president of the CFIA when it agreed that companies could use hormone-free and antibiotic-free on their product labels as long as it could be verified.
He now says the proliferation of those labels has raised questions in consumers’ minds that industry has not answered.
It’s because of a gap between scientific legitimacy and democratic legitimacy, he says, between what scientists say is safe and what consumers believe is safe.
“Many consumers are scientifically illiterate but they are not stupid,” he wrote in a food law column published this week. “If there’s no problem, they ask, why are so many other major countries tightening their regulations? And why do we see such a proliferation of ‘antibiotic-free’ labels in meat counters?”
Industry critics would argue that it is the rise of a politicization of food safety rules that result in emotions from misinformed consumers ruling the roost rather than the science based findings of safety.
Doering has a different view.
He figures it is a consumer perception based on knowledge that antibiotics are used not just to combat disease but on healthy animals so they do not get disease and therefore grow faster.
Many call this using unnecessary antibiotics as a growth promotants.
The Ontario Medical Association has called for a ban on using antibiotics as growth promotants.
“I think while we have debated the science, the market moved beyond it,” says Doering.
“Risk assessment always is science based. Risk management is policy based. That’s the distinction.”