Meat, antibiotics, and a regulatory wasteland

Posted By William Stephenson – Nov. 25, 2013

Antibiotics administered to humans in the US total about 3.3 million kilogrammes annually. Antibiotics administered to livestock, by contrast, exceed 13 million kilogrammes. Amid growing concerns about antibiotic resistant superbugs, should we worry about the amount of antibiotic use in livestock?

Antibiotic resistance in livestock: risk to humans?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that producers should use antibiotics in livestock judiciously, since they contribute to the “emergence, persistence, and spread of resistant bacteria.” Resistant pathogens in livestock are of particular concern, since they can “directly or indirectly” lead to resistant infections in humans, through meat consumption, for example.

Today, many farmers rely on antibiotics to prevent disease in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). This allows them to raise large numbers of animals in close quarters, thus decreasing overhead costs. The animals receive antibiotics through their feed, injections, or topically. Critics especially decry the use of antibiotics in feed, since there is no way to control the dose if the animals are allowed to eat as much as they want.

While the causal link between antibiotic resistant pathogens in livestock and humans remains unclear, some studies have documented a correlation. Notably, a 2010 study of the use of the antibiotic Ceftiofur in chicken production in Québec found evidence that it led to “extended-spectrum cephalosporin resistance in bacteria from chicken and humans.” The researchers concluded that Canada should “scrutinize and, where appropriate, limit use of ceftiofur in chicken production” to preserve the effectiveness of extended-spectrum cephalosporins.

“Own use” regulatory gap in Canada

The most glaring regulatory gap in Canada is the “own use” loophole, which allows farmers to import about $100 million of antibiotics yearly – including unapproved and untested antibiotics – to use on their own animals. Since no one oversees the use of these antibiotics, this represents an enormous void in Canada’s antibiotics resistance strategy.

Toward sounder antibiotic use

In Canada, the most pressing issue in this domain is to close the “own use” loophole and ensure better oversight of the use of antibiotics in livestock. In a 2013 policy paper, the Ontario Medical Association also called for banning the prophylactic and growth-promoting use of antibiotics to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics. These measures are essential to correcting our approach to antibiotic resistance.

Canada could also incentivize producers to move away from CAFOs, which require a volume of antibiotics, and instead encourage a move toward more natural production. This can, in fact, lead to significant savings. Russ Kremer, for example, found that in the first year he transitioned from his confined hog operation to a natural, antibiotic-free operation, he saved between $16,000-18,000 on veterinary bills and antibiotics.

Consumers can also have an impact on the use of antibiotics in livestock by demanding antibiotic-free meat, poultry and dairy. The market may be the most effective way to reduce – and eventually eliminate – our dependence on antibiotics in livestock production.


Further reading:

Task Force on “Own Use” Importation of Antibiotics

For a contrasting view on the use of antibiotics in livestock

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