Food safety, antibiotics and Canadian beef – can the 3 go together?

This is the final part of our three-part series on the use of antibiotics (or more accurately, antimicrobials), in food animals.

To conclude this series, we’re looking at the measures in place to ensure food safety when antibiotics are given to food animals. We continue our conversation with Dr. Sherry Hannon, research team lead and veterinary epidemiologist at Feedlot Health Management Services Ltd.

Animal protein is important in maintaining human health and combatting global food shortages,” said Sherry. “But at the same time, animal welfare needs to be supported and we don’t want animals to suffer because we are afraid to use antimicrobials to treat them, or because regulation will not allow the use of antimicrobials in animals.”

Food safety practices

Farmers play an important role in producing safe, healthy food, while protecting public health. But the care and welfare of their animals is an equally important priority for them. That requires a balance of sound science and responsible practices.

“Stringent food safety practices can help us ensure that the use of antimicrobials is safe for humans while allowing the best in animal care. The food safety practices for controlling bacteria during slaughter and processing are excellent, regulated and effective,” Sherry stated.

She stressed that, for the consumer, proper cooking of all food is the best way to protect against bacteria that has become resistant to antimicrobials.

Regulation of antimicrobials in Canada

Antimicrobials are subjected to a series of rigorous tests, clinical trials and field studies before they can be approved for use in animals or people. And even after a product is approved, testing and monitoring continues.

“Government, public health, veterinary, and livestock agricultural industry sectors have all been working to improve antimicrobial use protocols, monitoring, and transparency,” said Sherry.

“Soon, loopholes will be closed which allow antimicrobials to enter Canada without monitoring (‘own-use importation’ and the import of active pharmaceutical ingredients). The practice of buying antimicrobials at a farm store for use in animals will also no longer be allowed.”

The use of antimicrobials in animals strictly for growth promotion is another practice that’s on its way out. Regulations are soon to be introduced ensuring that the treatment must be required for health reasons.

To treat or not to treat?

In the balance, the benefits to animal welfare and food safety far outweigh the concerns surrounding the use of antimicrobials (including antibiotics) in beef cattle. There are valid concerns though, and they are being taken seriously. Changing regulations and practices will continue to address the issues around their use.

To learn about another food safety issue, check out  ‘Beef and hormones: what the science says’.