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Producers can get in front of antibiotic controversy

The Canadian cattle industry has taken steps to get in front of controversy over antibiotic resistant bacteria and their potential connection to livestock.

More will be required.

In a nutshell, the controversy surrounds an increasing number of antibiotic resistant bacteria that are affecting human health, most recently including methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and New Delhi metallo-betalactamase (NDM-1.) Some factions in the medical and political fields believe use of antibiotics in livestock is leading to an increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria affecting human health.

The debate has reached higher gear in the United States than in Canada. American politicians, physicians, veterinarians and lobby groups are debating a bill that supports a ban on all non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. If such things follow the usual pattern, it will soon be a topic of debate here as well.

What’s non-therapeutic or sub-therapeutic use? A paper written by scientists with Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge and the University of Calgary provides helpful definitions:

• Therapeutic: treatment of an existing disease condition

• Prophylactic: administration during conditions of high disease risk

• Sub-therapeutic: administration for enhanced production.

It’s this last category that is at issue. Antibiotics are sometimes administered in livestock feed and/or water to maintain animal health and increase growth. Their use can add to the bottom line, and most livestock producers are sorely in need of methods that add to the bottom line.

More often, however, antibiotics are used to treat illness, which also adds to the bottom line and is part of producers’ duty of care to their livestock.

In the grand scheme of things, human health concerns take precedence over animal health and productivity issues,. The trouble is, there is no scientifically proven connection between antibiotic resistant health conditions in humans and the use of antibiotics in livestock production. There are indications, yes, but no verification.

If they haven’t already done so, livestock industry groups should throw their collective weight behind calls for more research into the issue, so the question will be resolved and appropriate action can be taken.

It would also be useful to launch a more concentrated campaign informing the public about programs like Canada’s verified beef production program, which requires producers to prove proper use, dose, storage and disposal of antibiotics. They might also explain that antibiotic use keeps meat prices lower for consumers. According to some studies in the European Union, a ban on antibiotic use could increase beef prices by as much as 34 percent.

Countering that figure, however, are others from the U.S. based Union of Concerned Scientists, which suggests a ban would increase American per capita meat costs by $5 to $10 per year.

The difference in figures emphasizes the point that more research is needed.

At the grassroots level, producers can also get in front of coming controversy by reviewing production practices. As Westlock, Alta., veterinarian Dr. Roy Lewis said in theProducer’sJuly 29 issue, a review of individual producers’ livestock treatment protocols could benefit everyone.

Sub-therapeutic antibiotics cannot compensate for poor nutrition, hygiene or lack of adequate immunization. More is not better when it comes to antibiotics. Attention must be paid to adequate dose and duration, and consultation with a vet can eliminate unnecessary antibiotic use while also doing what is best for animals.

Producers must get in front of this issue before it gives a needless black eye to the industry.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen and D’Arce McMillan collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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