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Choose antibiotic-free meat and poultry products

Photo of a hand with frostbitten fingers.
Photo of Vanessa Kornelsen. VANESSA KORNELSEN
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, July 21, 2018

Since their discovery in the early 20th century, antibiotics have played an important role in the advancement of modern medicine.

In addition to treating bacterial infections, antibiotics are used to prevent infections during medical procedures such as surgeries, cancer treatment and organ transplants.

However, the ever-spreading resistance of bacteria to antibiotics is threatening their success.

A patient in the United States, for example, recently died after being infected by an organism resistant to 26 different antibiotics. The fear is that incidents like this one are going to become more and more common. By 2050, some scientists believe, antibiotic-resistant infections could cause more human deaths than cancer does today.

Antibiotic resistance also has a significant economic impact. The World Economic Forum estimates that antibiotic-resistant infections can result in an overall 1.5 per cent reduction in gross domestic product because of more expensive health-care, longer hospital stays, and longer absences from work, among other things.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics is one of the key factors leading to resistance, so several countries are working on strategies for prudent use of antibiotics in clinics and hospitals. However, almost 80 per cent of antibiotics produced in countries like the U.S. and Canada are used in non-clinical settings such as animal production. While the sale of antibiotics for treating human infections remained constant from 2001 to 2011, the numbers for meat and poultry production increased 26 per cent.

Antibiotics are being used to increase growth, improve feed efficiency and prevent disease in animals, which increases profit margins. Fewer sick animals means money saved on treatment or disposal of diseased animals. Increased growth means shorter turnaround times from farm to slaughterhouse. So then where is the problem?

When livestock consume antibiotics in their feed, there are two major routes for spreading antibiotic resistance. The first is that all the susceptible bacteria in the animal itself are killed off, leaving behind only the bacteria resistant to the antibiotic.

For example, when a chicken eats feed that includes an antibiotic, only the resistant bacteria remain. If someone gets a Salmonella infection from eating improperly prepared chicken, this infection will now be much more difficult to treat due to the resistance the bacteria acquired in the chicken.

The other route for spreading antibiotic resistance is when animals excrete bacteria that are now resistant to antibiotics. This is especially troublesome because bacteria share their antibiotic resistance with other species of bacteria. Resistant bacteria in the environment can be encountered by other animals or end up in our rivers and lakes. Once resistance to an antibiotic is introduced to the environment, there is no taking it back. The damage is done.

This heavy use of antibiotics on farms also contaminates our environment with antibiotic drugs. Not surprisingly, low levels of antibiotics are found in water bodies and soil samples near farms that use antibiotics. These antibiotics can readily select for bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. And it does not take long for resistance genes to spread to other bacterial species. The problem is compounded if the antibiotics being used on farms are the same as those used for treating human infections.

So what can be done?

First, it is important to limit use of antibiotics in animals to treating infections under proper veterinary supervision. Vaccines, when available, offer a powerful alternative. Adopting sustainable livestock raising methods with improved hygiene is equally important. 

The Canadian government released an action plan late last year to tackle the issue of antibiotic resistance and antibiotic use in Canada. This plan includes promoting responsible use of antibiotics in animals. Starting December 2018, antibiotics classified as medically important will be sold by prescription only for veterinary use in Canada.

The government is doing its part; we also need to do our part by opting to purchase meat and poultry products that are free from antibiotics.

Vanessa Kornelsen is a PhD student in the Laboratory of Professor Ayush Kumar in Department of Microbiology at the University of Manitoba. Professor Ayush Kumar contributed to this article. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, July 21, 2018.

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