Oct 31, 2011 by Lee Hart

Managing “superbugs” isn’t like swatting flies


Perhaps the most newsworthy item out of a Toronto
conference, which has brought together a couple hundred animal health industry
people to talk about the issue of bacteria resistant to penicillin and a wide range
of other modern drugs is that “they are working on it.”

They are not going to wrap this event up Wednesday with a
firm plan of action — a silver bullet strategy — , but I think everyone will go
home with a renewed commitment to do a better job in their particular area of
interest whether they be government regulators, farmers, veterinarians, animal
health product manufacturers, drug distributors, feed mills or who ever.

Talk about a multi-pronged issue – trying to get a handle on
the subject at the Antimicrobial Stewardship in Canadian Agriculture Conference
is like trying to grab mud with your bare hands.

It is my impression that, yes everyone agrees there are more
drug-resistant strains of bacteria and other organisms out there today, and
vigilance and good management practices —good stewardship — is needed to
minimize or perhaps prevent the development of these so-called “superbugs”, but
the challenge is to get everyone pulling in the same direction at the same time
toward this goal.

It is a complex issue. Just in Canada alone you have
thousands of farmers with millions of animals (poultry, cows, horses, sheep,
dogs and cats), several animal health manufacturers, dozens of distributors, a
few thousand veterinarians, and multiple government departments, at both the
federal and provincial levels who all need to be singing in tune from the same
song sheet. And then when you add in the complication that it is really an
international issue, well, it begins to sound overwhelming.

But before everyone goes all organic, there are a few points
to be made:

 

       Canadian
food is still very healthy and safe. Animal agriculture is still doing a good
job.

       Yes,
there are more antibiotic and/or antimicrobial resistant strains of bacteria developing.
That is a concern that needs to be addressed, but the issue isn’t at a crisis
level that threatens to shutdown livestock production, anymore than herbicide
resistant weeds are poised to shut down crop production.

       Animal
agriculture is only a minor contributor to the whole issue of antimicrobial
resistant bacteria. If there had never been a drop of penicillin (or other
drug) used in a feedlot or a chicken barn, the issue of antimicrobial
resistance in society would still be out there as a result of “advances” in
human medicine. Bacteria is smart. If it feels threatened or challenged it will
find a way to morph itself into a form that can resist that challenge.

       There
are sound protocols and procedures in place, or at least on paper the industry
can follow to minimize the risk of antimicrobial resistance, the challenge is
to get everyone to follow these protocols.

–   And let’s not forget too, regardless of what happens at the farm or the feedlot, if all foods were properly handled and cooked at the processor, retailer and consumer level many of the bacteria issues, wouldn’t be an issue. 

While more or more current government regulations are needed
to address the whole issue of drug use in agriculture, a lot of voluntary
progress has been made by the industry — particularly in the last five years —
with quality assurance programs in various sectors of animal agriculture which
have gone a long way toward ensuring the proper use of medications and feed
additives. Much more has still to be done.

While this conference is working to turn this ocean liner
around, a couple people made the point that hopefully it doesn’t take an
outbreak of some Godzilla bacteria at a major hospital or an elementary school
blamed on bad burger or chicken fingers to get government, producers and other players
in the animal health industry moving a little faster.

Lee
Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or
by email at
[email protected]

 

 

 

Lee Hart

Lee Hart


Lee Hart is a long-time farm writer, and honorary member of the Alberta Institute of Agrologists, with many observations on the agriculture industry, who never hesitates to admit he is wrong (should that ever happen.)


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