I like wading in on complex, scientific topics like antibiotic resistance blamed on the use of too many antibiotics in the livestock industry, because then I can clear things up for the average, lay reader.
So on this subject I can say that I completely agree — yes antibiotics are used in the livestock industry. Are they over used? Perhaps
in some circumstances. Are they causing a problem for human health? I don’t know. Should they be more closely regulated and monitored? Sounds like a good idea to me. Should they be banned? Well if that’s what the world wants, go for it. Will that solve all the concerns about antibiotic resistance related to human health? I doubt it.
So there we have it. You can take that to the bank.
This is one of those can of worms issues like global warming, the societal risks of GMOs, the impact of the oil sands, the meaning of life, and what are the real lyrics to the 1965 song Woolly Bully — everyone has an opinion, many people say they have the facts, and nothing comes to a conclusion.
It was a paper written by University of Calgary economist Aidan Hollis that most recently threw a shovel full of opinion into the fan. Hollis, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine says the flood of antibiotics released in the environment — sprayed on fruit trees, fed to livestock, poultry and salmon, and used elsewhere — has led bacteria to evolve resulting in an increase in resistant pathogens immune to available antimicrobial treatments.
He says it can lead to a human health crisis on a global scale. He advocates applying user fees to the use of antibiotics, comparable to stumpage fees and royalties paid by logging and oil companies as a means to monitor and perhaps restrict use.
And he may be right on all those points, but I know from listening to this issue over the years, it isn’t a black and white topic. It has been two or three years since I attended a conference in Toronto with 225 veterinarians, animal health industry reps, researchers, human medicine and public health reps and government regulators. And aside from the stress of trying to maintain for two days, the appearance that I knew what everyone was talking about, the other thing that was clear is this is a complex topic.
Antibiotics and hormones are used widely in the livestock industry to keep and make dogs, cats, horses, cattle, pigs, poultry, and fish healthy and free of disease and achieving optimal growth. That’s generally positive, but they aren’t well regulated, monitoring is poor, and a lot of other factors come into play as well.
The main concern about widespread antibiotic use in agriculture is that bacteria will become resistant to commonly used antibiotics used for human health. It probably isn’t an accurate term from a scientific point of view, but the risk is in creating superbugs that nothing can kill. And the industry also has to wage battle against the all-too-common perception as soon as you stick a needle into a steer a certain percentage of the population will break out in a rash. A & W burger chain customers are busy telling the world these days they feel better, younger and smarter eating natural, antibiotic-free beef. So it must be true.
Agriculture agrees it is part of the problem, or at least part of the equation when talking about the risk of creating superbugs. But getting a handle on it is a bit like grabbing a handful of mud. First of all bacteria are always changing and evolving, regardless of whether antibiotics are used or not. It is difficult to measure a connection between use of antibiotics in a feedlot, for example, and whether that consistently leads to resistant bacteria. Then there’s the issue that the use of antibiotics in human medicine itself is creating resistant pathogens. The Canadian and provincial regulatory systems are complicated and divergent. And the point is clearly made that even if veterinarians and the animal health companies did have tight control of antibiotic use on farms, about a third of the products used come into Canada through unregulated loopholes referred to as OUI (own use importation) and API (active pharmaceutical ingredients) exemptions, which means a producer can acquire veterinary drugs for their own use outside the system. Who knows what they are and how they are being used.
That conference I attended showed it is a complex issue. John Campbell with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine said managing and monitoring antimicrobials was “Mission Impossible”. But overall the conference concluded by saying all sectors would strive to improve the prudent use and stewardship of antibiotic use and report back in another five years.
While news coverage of articles like that written by Aiden Hollis might fuel the concern of consumers and animal agriculture critics already thinking modern livestock production practices are killing us, it is also a good prod to remind the industry the need is still there to get a better handle on these products and their impact, before some big regulatory shoe drops.
Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]