How We Can Cut Overuse of Antibiotics in our Food

$1-trillion investor coalition demands corporate action on ‘systemic overuse’ of antibiotics in global meat and poultry supply chains

By Jennifer Reynolds -  Institutional Food Program Manager at Food Secure Canada

The World Health Organization has named antimicrobial resistance a global health security emergency and without action we are threatened with a return to a pre-antibiotic era.

Each year in Canada, more than 18,000 hospitalized patients acquire infections resistant to antimicrobials and the “total medical care costs associated with antimicrobial resistant infections have been estimated at one billion dollars”. (Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), “Canadian Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System (CARRS) Report 2015”, March 2015).

Antimicrobial resistance (where a microbe has become resistant to treatment with antibiotics for example) has developed “largely due to inappropriate use of antimicrobial treatment, patients not finishing prescription regimens, and improper use in livestock or crops.” (PHAC, “Antimicrobial resistance and use in Canada: A Federal Framework for Action”, October 2014).

Antibiotics are used for the treatment of disease, the prevention of disease and to improve feed efficiency or promote growth (production claims) in meat production and in Canada “food-production animals are, by quantity, the primary sector where antimicrobials are used and represent a large selection pressure for antimicrobial resistance.”(CARSS Report 2015). Specifically, “of the medically-important antimicrobials (all classes used in human medicine), 78% were used in production animals; approximately four times more antimicrobials distributed for animals than sold for human use.” (CARSS Report 2015)

If we don't act now, any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can't be treated by antibiotics. - Chief Medical Officer, UK, Professor Dame Sally Davies


We need to cut the systemic overuse of antibiotics in meat production

Earlier this month, Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) and ShareAction launched an engagement campaign with ten of the biggest US and UK restaurant chains to call for an end to non-therapeutic use of antibiotics important to human health in their global meat and poultry supply chains. Together they represent a $1-trillion coalition of 54 institutional investors, including Aviva Investors, Natixis Asset Management, ACTIAM, Mirova, Coller Capital and Strathclyde Pension Fund.

The investors have written to these companies to ask them to set appropriate timelines to prohibit the use of all medically important antibiotics in their global meat and poultry supply chains.


What is happening in Canada?

Health Canada is working in collaboration with the Canadian Animal Health Institute to implement two measures related to antimicrobial use in food animals: the removal of growth promotion and/or production claims of medically important antimicrobial drugs; and the development of options to strengthen the veterinary oversight of antimicrobial use in food animals. (Health Canada, Notice to stakeholders, April 10, 2014.)

But critics note that simply changing claims for antibiotics from growth promotion to disease prevention will not be effective.

“We’re not going to achieve anything if we stop at the growth promotion discussion,” says Dr. Greg Douglas, Ontario’s chief veterinarian. “In other jurisdictions, they’ve found that the drugs are not used for growth promotion, wink, wink, they’re used for disease prevention” (Kelly Crow, “Health Canada’s Quiet move to end use of antibiotics to fatten animals”, CBC, July 9, 2014).


Leveraging purchasing power

In addition to corporate action, purchasing decisions by consumers, retailers and institutions can have a direct impact by choosing meat raised without antibiotics. As those on the frontline of dealing with antimicrobial resistance, Canadian health care facilities could leverage their purchasing power as US hospitals are starting to do this - 270 hospitals in the Health Care Without Harm network participated in 2015 Food Day by serving meat produced without antibiotics.

“Voting with our forks” can help to shift the value chain towards greater sustainability but we also need to develop comprehensive policies at the national level that holistically address the connected issues of health, sustainability and agricultural viability.


Do you purchase meat raised without antibiotics? Do you know if your local school, hospital or university campus has a policy that prioritizes purchasing meat raised without antibiotics? We’d love to hear about it.