Antibiotic Concerns North of the Border

April 11/The Globe and Mail -- Canadian farmers may be putting public health at risk through the widespread practice of importing unapproved and untested antibiotics for use in livestock, the Canadian Medical Association Journal says.

In an article released online this week, the journal says a loophole in federal law allows meat producers to import about $100 million worth of medications into Canada each year with little oversight.

Farmers often give antibiotics and other drugs to healthy animals to hasten their growth or prevent disease outbreaks, but medicating healthy livestock is considered controversial. The European Union banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters three years ago, in part because many medical experts say the practice provides an ideal environment for breeding drug-resistant superbacteria.

People could pick up such bacteria either from undercooked meat, or from the general environment through the dispersal of manure and other farm wastes. Farmers limit direct human exposure to drug residues by not using medications for a period before animals are slaughtered.

The journal is highlighting the issue because a federal task force dominated by the livestock industry raised the prospect of having Health Canada keep in place the import loophole for another two years, while the government studies a pilot program for placing limited restrictions on such drug purchases.

The little-known drug issue has been simmering since 2002, when an advisory committee to Health Canada urged the government to tighten the loophole by preventing farmers from importing antimicrobials not evaluated and registered for use here.

Farmers are able to import drugs under Health Canada's so-called "own use" policy that allows individuals to bring up to a 90-day supply of most drugs into the country for personal consumption. The policy has been broadly interpreted as allowing farmers to import drugs for their animals.

A report and recommendations from the task force were published with little fanfare on Health Canada's website on December 30 and was open for a nine-week consultation period. However,a link to the report wasn't operational for five weeks and started working only after the CMAJ inquired about it.

In a statement, Health Canada said it considers the problem of antimicrobial resistance a "priority." However, it cautioned that antibiotic use "in both humans and animals contributes greatly toward public health," while also raising the potential of antimicrobial resistance. "There are ongoing debates with respect to the contribution of agricultural use of these drugs toward the global burden of antimicrobial resistance in humans," it said.

The task force report said Canadian beef and pork producers are facing cost pressures due in part to rising feed prices and suggested farmers can lower expenses by bringing in cheaper U.S. drugs.

Even though drugs and other veterinary expenses comprise only 1.9% of the cost of raising livestock, the report contends the amount is significant: "While this may seem like a small component of the overall cost of production for livestock producers, lower priced U.S. product can help to reduce producer losses by lowering the cost of some animal health products."

The CMAJ article said the task force was heavily influenced by the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, the trade group for beef producers, and didn't include any public health experts, even though the issue of drug use in farming has arisen because of worries about possible impacts on human health.

Rob McNabb, a spokesman for the cattle group, said farmers need personal access to the U.S. market because drugs there are often 60-70% cheaper than in Canada, and domestic veterinary medicine companies would drive up prices in the absence of this competition.

The CMAJ is portraying drug use in farming as if it's "rampant and widespread," but this is "not quite accurate," McNabb said. He said the biggest contributors to antibiotic resistance are doctors, who often give antibiotics for virus-caused infections, for which they are ineffective, and the failure of many patients to take medicines as directed.

However, Dr. Donald Low, microbiologist in chief at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, said the medical community is aware of this problem and has been cutting down on unnecessary antibiotic use. "We still have a way to go to use these drugs properly," he said, "but that does not provide an excuse to use them inappropriately in agriculture."

From the April 13, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition