by Larry Powell - *Hog Watch Manitoba
(Note: Asterisks link to references at bottom.)
A pork processing plant in Neepawa, MB. Photo credit - HyLifeFoods.
Antibiotics have been bestowing a world of good on the human condition ever since Alexander Fleming discovered the most famous one - penicillin - almost a century ago. Thanks to their ability to counter deadly infections, millions of lives have been saved - truly a turning point in the history of mankind.
But, for some years now, clouds have been gathering. Numerous agencies, from the **World Health Organization (WHO) to our own ***Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), have been sounding similar alarm bells. All the wondrous benefits inherent in these life-saving medications may already be in jeopardy.
As PHAC states on its website, “There’s increasing evidence that the use of antimicrobial agents in veterinary medicine and livestock production is an important contributing factor in the emergence of bacteria in people which have grown resistant to these medications.”
It’s officially called “antimicrobial resistance,” or AMR. And it’s getting worse. Overuse spurs the growth of “superbugs,” which can then be transferred to people who eat the treated meat. As a result, fewer and fewer of the best drugs we can throw at them, are working, even on infections once considered routine.
Almost eighty percent of antibiotics sold in Canada are being given to livestock. And livestock in this country have, for some time, outnumbered people by about twenty-to-one.
One estimate from the UN’s ****Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states - agriculture, globally - could be using more than 240,000 tonnes, yearly. (Due to spotty data collection, it’s a rough estimate, only.)
|Photo credit - FAO.|
*****The O’ Neill report commissioned by the UK government in 2014, predicted that, by 2050, AMR will claim ten million lives a year, more than cancer itself. As the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, stated flatly, “If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine"
And, as if we needed more convincing, here’s how the WHO puts it.
“If AMR isn’t contained, medical procedures such as caesarean sections, hip replacements, cancer chemotherapy, organ transplantation, malaria and tuberculosis and even childbirth will become increasingly risky.”
What about Canada?
In a peer-reviewed study just over a year ago, ******the Council of Canadian Academies revealed - more than five thousand Canadians had already died as a direct result of AMR in 2018. Twenty-six percent of infections then, were already resistant. And if that number rises to 40% by 2015 (considered “highly plausible”), so, too will the death toll - to almost 400 thousand.
Hog Watch, therefore wants to know, why were hog producers on the Prairies (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) actually feeding more antibiotics to their herds in 2018 than they were the year before? (Latest figs. available.)
And how were their counterparts in the east (ON & PQ), able to feed less over that same period?
This information is confirmed in the 2018 annual report of *******“CIPARS,” an obscure federal surveillance program.
Here’s what the WHO recommends in this regard.
“Simply stop giving animals such medications altogether, whether to promote growth or prevent disease. Healthy animals should only be treated if disease is diagnosed elsewhere in the same herd. And, even while treating animals already sick, only medications not considered critical for the treatment of human infections, should be used.”
Despite all this, producers across Canada were still giving nineteen different antibiotics, considered important in the treatment of human infections, to their herds. And they weren’t given just to treat diseases after an outbreak, but to prevent disease and promote growth (to make their animals grow faster), too.
While feeding more in 2018, there was no significant difference in the amount of antibiotics those prairie producers injected into their herds from the year before.
However, one of those injectibles, ceftiofur, is of particular concern. Even though it isn’t given to people, just animals, it’s still listed as “very highly important.” That’s because it could well be transferring harmful resistance to other drugs in its class which are critical as human medications.
These are called “third-generation cephalosporins.” They’re considered medications of “last resort” in the treatment of ailments such as gonorrhoea. Yet, they’re already beginning to fail in several countries. The incidence of this sexually-transmitted disease has grown rapidly in Canada in recent years, reaching nearly 30,000 cases in 2017. This has raised fears that, one day soon, gonorrhoea will become incurable.
The poultry sector sets an example.
In 2014, chicken and turkey producers in Canada voluntarily stopped using drugs of most importance in treating human infections on their flocks. CIPARS reports, except for a small increase in BC, “This appears to be reducing antimicrobial resistance.”
On the other hand, some “isolates” (bacterial samples) taken from sick pigs “showed resistance to all seven classes of antimicrobials tested.”
Could the dominant method of producing livestock here and around the world actually contribute to the problem?
Here’s what the then Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan had to say in a major address on this topic some seven years ago.
“The industrialization of food production is an especially worrisome trend. Confined animal feeding operations are not farms any more. They’re protein factories with multiple hazards for health and the environment. These hazards come from the crowding of large numbers of animals in very small spaces, the stressful conditions that promote disease, the large quantities of dangerous waste, the need for frequent human contact with the animals.”
(Hog Watch MB supports group housing for breeding sows and straw-based housing for all pigs.)
And, because there’s already evidence that resistance may be spreading through livestock waste, we’re also calling for the phaseout, over the next decade, of all liquid hog manure applications on food crops as a fertilizer.
Missing from the equation - Transparency and accountability
About six weeks ago, Hog Watch MB emailed ******Manitoba Pork, the organization representing the hog industry in this province, for input into these issues. At this writing, it hasn’t responded.
This is consistent with a culture of secrecy which has prevailed inside this very large and controversial industry for years.
According to CIPARS, here’s how the hog industry provides it with data on antibiotic usage. “To preserve the anonymity of participating producers, herd veterinarians collected the samples and data and submitted coded information to PHAC. In the case of corporate herds, confidentiality was ensured through a single corporate herd code for all corporate veterinarians, thus preventing a corporate veterinarian from being associated with a specific herd and protecting anonymity.”
Will this culture of secrecy help or hinder efforts to bring overuse under control?
Since Dec. 2018, it has actually been an infraction under the Food and Drug Act, for producers to give medically-important drugs to their herds, without a prescription from a veterinarian. It’s not believed any violations have been reported, so far.
On the face of it, this would appear to offer the industry plenty of "wiggle room." It is, after all, far from an outright ban.
All of this, we believe, presents a golden opportunity for the Pallister Government to assure Manitobans that usage in this province isn’t still heading in the wrong direction.
While there’s still a place for antibiotic use in agriculture, it must surely be done in ways that are more responsible and transparent than this.
We challenge this Government - Prove that you can be more than just a cheerleader for industry and be a responsible and transparent regulator, instead.
This is an important health issue. And health, after all is a provincial responsibility.
*What is Hog Watch Manitoba?
Hog Watch Manitoba is a non-profit coalition of environmentalists, farmers, friends of animals, social justice advocates, trade unions and scientists. We are promoting a hog industry in Manitoba that is ethically, environmentally and economically sustainable.
**World Health Organization - “Stop using antibiotics in healthy animals!”
***Public Health Agency of Canada.
****Food & Agriculture Organizaton
*****The O’Neill Report
******The Council of Canadian Academies - “When Antibiotics Fail.”
*******The Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance (CIPARS), keeps track of trends in antibiotic usage and the degree to which resistances are developing. Run by the Public Health Agency of Canada, it also works to make sure that these medications, many critical to the health of both animals and humans, are preserved.
********EMAIL TO MANITOBA PORK
Larry Powell <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Wed., Jan. 6 at 7:36 p.m.
Dear Manitoba Pork,
I'm attaching a story now published on my blog. I would invite your input.
Why did antibiotic use in your industry increase in the time span mentioned?
What has happened with such usage in your industry since 2018?
Do you accept the concerns of medical experts over antibiotic use in livestock?
SHOAL LAKE, MB
Please visit: Planet in Peril - where science gets respect.
AMR MB HOGS
DESPITE LONG-STANDING AND WIDESPREAD WARNINGS OF THE DANGERS, HOG PRODUCERS ON THE CANADIAN PRAIRIES WERE STILL FEEDING MORE ANTIBIOTICS TO THEIR PIGS IN 2018 THAN THEY DID THE YEAR BEFORE. (LATEST FIGS. AVAILABLE.)