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Jason Froese, general manager of JD Farmers, checks on three-month-old turkeys almost ready for Easter at his farm in Langley on April 2, 2014. JD Farmers farmers produces turkeys which are grain-fed and antibiotic-free.

JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Dozens of major pharmaceutical companies have agreed to adopt a U.S. Food and Drug Administration program designed to reduce the use of antibiotics in food animals, potentially increasing pressure on Canadian authorities to follow suit.

Last month, the FDA announced 25 companies – including ADM Alliance Nutrition, Bayer Healthcare and Novartis – have agreed to stop labelling certain drugs for "production purposes," that is, to make animals grow more quickly or process food more efficiently.

The companies also agreed therapeutic drug use would require a veterinary prescription.

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The changes are part of a program the FDA announced in late 2013 to ensure that antimicrobial drugs are used only when medically necessary.

"This is huge in the U.S. and will likely be hugely influential in Canada," John Prescott, a professor with the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, said Wednesday in an e-mail.

"One reason is that [Canadian] farmers have allegedly resisted change because they wanted a 'level trading field,' " he said.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in food production are contributing to the rise of multidrug-resistant organisms, which can make some human sicknesses nearly impossible to treat.

In a February presentation to a Senate committee, John Conly – director of infection prevention and control at Calgary's Foothills Medical Centre – said up to 50 per cent of antibiotic use in humans and up to 80 per cent of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary.

"We are virtually bathed in an antibiotic ecosystem when we look at the use in human and veterinary medicine, and agriculture," Dr. Conly told the committee. "You can see it's [antibiotics] used in intensive hog operations, cattle farming, chicken farming and fish farming. Our soils, water table and oceans are becoming saturated with antibiotics."

Humans can get sick from consuming drug-resistant bacteria on meat or poultry, but experts say the greater risk is that drug-resistant genes can "pollute" people's bodies and even water and sewage systems – propelling the spread of drug-resistant organisms and increasing the risk that treatments for common conditions such as pneumonia or strep throat may no longer be effective.

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Canadian health and veterinary authorities have been wrestling with the issue for at least a decade but with limited success, partly as a result of a regulatory framework in which the federal government regulates the sale of antimicrobials but provinces regulate how the drugs are used.

The Council of Chief Veterinary Officers, which represents provincial veterinary officers, has expressed support for Health Canada to consider a similar approach to that taken by the FDA, council chair Betty Althouse said Wednesday in an e-mail.

"We are reviewing the changes announced by the FDA," Health Canada spokesman Gary Holub said Wednesday in an e-mail.

The use of antimicrobials in animals and humans is a shared responsibility across governments, industry and the health sector, he added.

"The Government of Canada encourages the prudent use of antimicrobials by all users, including physicians and patients, veterinarians, farmers, and other food producers," Mr. Holub said. "We are committed to working with other governments and with health, pharmaceutical, agriculture, and food sectors to limit and control the emergence and spread of [antimicrobial resistance]."

Some producers have already made up their minds.

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JD Farms, a family-owned business in Langley, B.C., raises and sells antibiotic-free turkeys.

"We just believe that people don't want [antibiotics] any more," owner Jason Froese said.

The operation also feeds its birds a plant-based diet free of animal byproducts.

"Those two combined are really what people are looking for," Mr. Froese said, referring to antibiotic-free and plant-fed birds. "Especially around Vancouver."

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