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Changes on the Horizon for Antibiotic-Free Food Consumption

November 1, 2015 8:30 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

A&W Better Beef Commercial

A screen grab from A&W’s ‘Better Beef’ commercial. (YOUTUBE)

NEEPAWA, Man. — It’s been less than a century since the discovery of antibiotics revolutionized modern medicine. Today, the debate about antibiotics, particularly their use in livestock destined for human consumption, is again at the forefront.

The problem is that wide-spread use of antibiotics over the last century has led to an increasing number of drug resistant super bugs. As many of the same antibiotics are used in both humans and livestock, of increasing concern is the use of antibiotics in healthy animals for growth promotion or disease prevention, and the impact this has on drug resistance.

It’s clear that changes are coming for the livestock industry, though the extent isn’t yet known.

Last year, Health Canada announced that they would be working with stakeholders to remove growth promotion and/or production claims of medically-important antimicrobial drugs, a move that puts Canada in line with the U.S. The label change will still allow antibiotics to be included in animal feed for disease prevention.

On Oct. 10, a bill was signed by California governor Jerry Brown that sets the strictest standards in that country for the use of antibiotics in livestock production. The California bill will no longer allow the use of antibiotics for disease prevention or fattening of animals. The bill will also require antibiotics, which can currently be purchased over the counter, to be ordered by a licensed veterinarian. The law will still allow producers to use antibiotics to treat sick animals or to control the outbreak of disease.

The changes aren’t only being driven by legislators and public health organizations, consumers are also pushing for antibiotic free meat. On Oct. 20, Subway announced that next year, they will start serving antibiotic-free chicken and turkey and that over the next nine years, they will stop selling meat from any animals given antibiotics at their American outlets. The move was met with strong criticism from the livestock industry due to its broad scope. In particular, an Oct. 22 blog post written by Anne Burkholder, a Nebraska beef producer, went viral.

Burkholder notes that withdrawal times already make it illegal in the U.S. (as it is in Canada) to market food animals that carry unsafe antibiotic residues. She added that Subway’s announcement to only buy meat from animals that have never been treated with antibiotics dramatically changes the way animals are raised. “In my mind, Subway’s announcement states that a bullet is their treatment of choice for sick food animals,” she said.

By the following day, Burkholder’s post had 500,000 views and Subway issued a revised statement. The company clarified its stand, saying that the policy will allow antibiotics to be used to treat, control and prevent disease, but not for growth promotion of farm animals.

On Oct. 26, McDonald’s Canada announced that by 2018, they will no longer serve chicken treated with antibiotics used on humans. The company is one of the biggest buyers of chicken in Canada and uses only Canadian-sourced meats.

McDonald’s meat is sourced through Cargill Canada and they reported that currently, chicken produced by the company doesn’t meet this target. For this industry, compliance will mean a move towards feed containing different types of antibiotic, those not used on humans, in order to keep the birds disease free.

It’s clear that we are moving towards a more limited use of antibiotics in the livestock industry and I think that’s a good thing. The challenge for producers is to educate consumers, who are far from the farms where their food is raised, about the responsible use of medication, what exactly antibiotic-free means and how it is accomplished. It will be interesting to see how these changes play out in farms across the province and it will mean different things for different sectors of the livestock industry.

Those in the livestock industry take pride in their role providing high quality, healthy food to Canadians. Ensuring the safety and security of our food is vitally important, as is ensuring that we are all doing our part when it comes to the health of Canadians.

Tags: Canada | Food | Manitoba