27 December 2013

Agricultural antibiotics creating a health crisis, Experts suggests

For years, public health officials have been calling for a reduction of the use of antibiotics in the food production industry, citing minimal benefit to the process and the increased risk of fostering antibiotic-resistant strains of harmful bacteria.

Instead of calling for a ban on the non-medicinal use of antibiotics, a report published on Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine recommended imposing a user fee “just as logging companies pay ‘stumpage’ fees and oil companies pay royalties.”

“Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections,” said report author Aidan Hollis, an economics professor at the University of Calgary. “This is incredibly important. Without effective antibiotics, any surgery even minor ones will become extremely risky. Cancer therapies, similarly, are dependent on the availability of effective antimicrobials. Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people.”

He added that we are constantly being exposed to bacteria throughout our daily lives.

“It’s not just the food we eat,” he said. “Bacteria is spread in the environment; it might wind up on a doorknob. You walk away with the bacteria on you and you share it with the next person you come into contact with. If you become infected with resistant bacteria, antibiotics won’t provide any relief.”

According to the report, antibiotics are fed to farmed salmon, sprayed on fruit trees, and even mixed into marine paint to reduce the formation of barnacles. However, Hollis asserted that the use of antibiotics in agriculture and aquaculture provides little benefit.

“It’s about increasing the efficiency of food so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed the cattle,” Hollis explained. “It’s about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they’re going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions.”

“These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn’t mean it’s generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal,” he added. “The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial.”

Citing logistical challenges and costs that would be passed onto consumers, the report author said a complete ban of agricultural antibiotics might be counter-productive. However, a user fee would be easy to administer, generate revenues for antibiotic research, reduce the low-value use of antibiotics and be easy to replicate in other countries the report said.

“Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders,” Hollis noted, adding that any such international treaties would have the additional motivation of revenue collection.

Hollis, himself a Canadian, noted that in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently sought voluntary limits on the use of antibiotics in animal food production. The report found that 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are used for the increase in food production.

“Is the Canadian government going to take any action to control the use of antibiotics for food production purposes?” he asked. “Health Canada is trying to monitor the use of antibiotics, but has virtually no control over use.”


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