Farmers dispute antibiotics study

Data incorrect? Ontario Medical Association calls for a ban on preventive use of antibiotics 
in animal agriculture while CCA says there is little evidence that animal antibiotics are a problem

Farm groups are fighting back in the wake of an Ontario Medical Association call to ban the preventive medicine use of farm antibiotics and stricter controls on the drugs overall.

The OMA plans to publish a study March 30 that argues human resistance to antibiotics is a growing health crisis and overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, including as preventive treatment to avoid illness and promote growth, is a major problem.

Bacteria mutate to form resistant strains to antibiotics.

The OMA calls for stricter control of on-farm antibiotic use in Ontario and the end of the drug as a disease prevention method or growth promotant.

“This step is fundamental to preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics,” said an OMA statement.

Canadian Cattlemen’s Association science director Dr. Reynold Bergen said there is little evidence that antibiotic use in the cattle industry is a significant factor in what the OMA said is a growing human health crisis.

There are four levels of antibiotics, and little antibiotic use in the cattle industry is of the “very high importance” category that is at issue in human use, he said from Calgary.

Bergen said the industry works with the Public Health Agency on studies of antibiotic use in the industry and evidence shows that it is not a serious human health issue.

He said that while the issue of antibiotic use is a recurring one, the latest OMA study reflects more on the authors of the report than on the industry.

“I don’t think it’s a black eye for the industry,” he said. “I’d say the black eye is on the publishers of the report for their use of selective data to make their point.”

Steven Leech, national program manager for food safety, animal care and research with Chicken Farmers of Canada, said the industry uses antibiotics responsibly and it is a necessary tool.

“It is a complex issue,” he said. “We use it as an important part of the industry to keep the flock healthy but we have industry discussions about the issue and developing smart policy that reduces antibiotic use.”

Agriculture Canada microbiologist Tim McAllister said the OMA report contained a number of inaccuracies, including a contention that the United States has superior controls on antibiotics. Canada has similar controls, he said.

“You just can’t go dumping these in willy nilly. You’ve got to have a script, you’ve got to have permission and there is monitoring of how those antibiotics are being included in the feed.”

As well, McAllister said antibiotics have not been shown in research to promote growth in cattle. The benefits more likely lie in reducing the incidence of illness among animals at higher risk of exposure, so their feed intake remains high.

“Prevention is considered economically and medically justifiable.”

Bacteria constantly adapt to changing conditions, said the researcher, and antibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon.

“It’s part of that bacterial war. All we’ve done is added to it by synthesizing compounds and increasing the concentration of those particular compounds in certain environments.”

McAllister agreed with the OMA’s recommendation that the amount of antibiotics used in both human and livestock health be better tracked and reported.

News of the OMA report came the same week that CFC became the first national commodity group to win federal and provincial government endorsement of its on-farm food safety program.

David Janzen, CFC chair, raised the issue in his March 19 speech to the annual meeting.

“Our commitment to responsible antimicrobial use and monitoring shows people that, while there’s still debate as to the role our industry might play in antimicrobial resistance, we’re committed to taking ourselves out of the equation altogether,” he said days before the OMA report became an issue.

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