Health Canada’s plan to address antimicrobial resistance has implications for animal agriculture that have yet to be clarified.
Released in late October, the federal framework for action against antimicrobial resistance calls for strengthening regulations on veterinary medicines and medicated feeds, which includes strengthening veterinary oversight and phasing out growth promotion claims on some animal drugs.
Dr. Reynold Bergen of the Beef Cattle Research Council said the latter directive, when implemented, would affect only three products used in beef cattle: tetracycline, neomycin and sulfamethazine. None are widely used in human medicine.
That is a key point because antimicrobial use in animal agriculture is suspected of contributing to the development of antimicrobial resistant bacteria that can affect human health, leaving few or no alternatives for treatment.
Bacteria naturally develop antimicrobial resistance, but overuse and misuse of antibiotics, in both human and animal medicine, are thought to increase the speed of their development.
“Additional contributors of antimicrobial resistance include using antibiotics when they are not needed, not taking antibiotics as prescribed, self-medicating or antibiotic sharing, as well as the long-term mass medication of food animals with antibiotics to promote growth or prevent illness,” Health Canada said when announcing its plan.
Bergen said the directive to remove growth promotion claims would not apply to ionophores used in cattle because they are not used in human medicine.
Removal of growth promotion claims won’t necessarily prevent producers from using them for that purpose, although it would be an off-label use.
Rob McNabb, general manager of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said there are no “drug police” when it comes to livestock, but off-label use of veterinary products does contravene regulations.
“The products will not be made available unless they are for the purpose of treatment,” McNabb said about the way he sees the directive taking shape.
“It sends the message that we want to follow, and we are going to contribute to, prudent use and contribute to the reduction of antimicrobial resistance where we can and where it does apply to us.”
That said, livestock are not huge contributors to the problem of antimicrobial resistance, McNabb added.
“We’re hardly even on the page, but unfortunately we get painted with the same brush as everybody else when it comes to food-producing animals and the use of these products.”
The Health Canada strategy in-cludes plans for increased veterinary oversight of antimicrobial use in food animals. McNabb said he doesn’t think that will affect producers’ access to needed treatments.
“I’d like to think not, as long as that oversight doesn’t require the veterinarians to actually administer the product, which I believe is what happens in the European Union.”
The Health Canada framework doesn’t provide detail on increased oversight.
“I do suspect that it does mean that a veterinarian has to be involved in at least prescribing the product, and I certainly have less issue with that than I would if a veterinarian had to administer it, because then we would run into the issue of access of the service.,” he said.
“If that’s where it’s heading, then I think that’s worth exploring.”
The area of seeking alternatives to veterinary medications and medicated feeds included more emphasis on biosecurity and prevention.
However, there are no drug alternatives to antimicrobials at present. Research is ongoing into probiotics and prebiotics, but a new animal health product hasn’t been released in years.
McNabb said Canada’s initiatives to curb antimicrobial resistance are parallel to those announced in the United States earlier this year.
McNabb said he thinks putting the framework into action will be a complex process because it will involve public health as well as animal health.
“It will include consultations and discussions, and we hope that it’s not ad nauseum, but the fact is that’s what we expect will happen, is that nothing will change until there’s been some consultation at all levels and that includes with the (livestock) industry itself.”