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The Globe and Mail

Canada gets failing grade on antibiotic use in animals

A hog rests in a bed of vegetables and fruit on a farm in Central Saanich, B.C., October 13, 2013. Canada is being cited by a veterinary journal for its failure to effectively regulate the use of veterinary antibiotics.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Canada's lack of progress in regulating veterinary use of antibiotic drugs has been called "a continuing international and national embarrassment" in light of dire warnings about the growing danger of drug resistance, says a report in the Canadian Veterinary Journal.

The report – prepared by a group that includes representatives from academia, veterinary medicine and industry – found that Canada has not closed a regulatory loophole that allows the importation, sale and use of drugs that have not been approved by Health Canada despite more than a decade of study on the issue, resulting in a grade of D.

The top-priority recommendation – a national system to monitor use in animals – fared slightly better, with a C grade.

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The lack of effective monitoring and control of antimicrobial drugs in animals in Canada is part of the global problem of antimicrobial resistance, which can make widely used drugs ineffective and raises the spectre of a 'post-antibiotic age' in which minor wounds or infections could be deadly.

"It would be nice to see a few As on there," said John Prescott, a pathobiology professor with the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph and co-chair of the committee that prepared the report.

Government and industry groups have been working on new regulations but progress has been "painfully slow," he said, largely because of a fragmented regulatory framework in which federal authorities regulate the sale of antimicrobials while provincial authorities regulate their use.

The report – Stewardship of antimicrobial drugs in animals in Canada: How are we doing? – appears in the March issue of the Canadian Veterinary Journal and follows previous studies that have called for better monitoring of antibiotics used in animals.

Resistant bacteria can be transferred to humans through the food supply – when people eat improperly cooked E. coli-tainted chicken, for example – or when humans have direct contact with animals at, say, a petting zoo.

In 2002, an advisory committee on antibiotics in animals issued a report to Health Canada with multiple recommendations, including closing the "own-use" loophole that allows people to purchase drugs for their own purposes.

That loophole remains on the books.

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"Our regulation in Canada is so loose and varied that it is almost untrackable," David Patrick, director of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, said on Wednesday.

The own-use provision means people can "drive your truck over the border, load it up with the antibiotics in the U.S., tell the border guard you're going to use on your own farm and it's done – nobody can track that, " Dr. Patrick added.

A Health Canada spokesman on Tuesday said the agency had not yet had the opportunity to review the report, which was prepared by the Ad-Hoc Committee for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Canadian Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine. That group was formed in 2011 and meets by teleconference every two months.

The committee ranks Canada's performance against recommendations from groups including the World Health Organization and pays particular attention to emerging standards in the United States, Dr. Prescott said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December announced plans to phase out the use of antibiotics in animals to make them grow more quickly or require less food, and to phase in veterinary oversight for "remaining appropriate therapeutic uses."

So far, Canada has not followed suit. That measure is ranked number two on the committee's report card.

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Market pressure may wind up resulting in changes that – so far, at least – regulation has been slow to deliver, Dr. Patrick said.

"Producers want to please consumers and they want to make sure their products can get to market," Dr. Patrick said. "So with the FDA in the U.S. saying they are going to need to track antibiotic use and remove antibiotics from use as growth promoters, with Canada opening the door to European Free Trade – any of those Canadian commodities that are looking at those markets are going to have to be thinking long and hard about how transparent they are in antibiotic use."

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