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Should Canadians be concerned about antibiotics in food animals?

Last week in part one of this three-part series, we explained why and how antimicrobials (of which antibiotics are one type) are used in beef cattle. This week we’re exploring the causes for concern over that use.

We continue our conversation with Dr. Sherry Hannon, research team lead and veterinary epidemiologist at Feedlot Health Management Services Ltd.

How long do antimicrobials stay in an animal’s system?

There are many different antimicrobials labelled for veterinary use in cattle in Canada. Each is classified according to its uses, its effect on bacteria and the way it works.

“As part of the label, a ‘withdrawal period’ – a period of time before which the animals are not allowed to enter the food chain – is specified. Some antimicrobials have a zero day withdrawal period (they are eliminated from the body within a very short period of time), while others are known to stay in the body for much longer periods,” Sherry explained.

Causes for concern in the use of antimicrobials

Sherry explained that there are two main concerns related to the use of antimicrobials:

1. Antimicrobial residues

A residue is a remnant of the antimicrobial molecule itself or a degradation product of that molecule, left in the animal after harvest.

“For each antimicrobial, a level of residues (usually extremely low) has been deemed to be acceptable for human health through rigorous safety trials,” said Sherry.

“Therefore, meat that goes for sale to people must be at or below that level. The withdrawal period for each antimicrobial defines the amount of time that must have elapsed from the last dose before an animal can be harvested for meat, thus ensuring any possible residues are below the acceptable level and safe for human consumption.

As an added step of food safety oversight, meat at processing plants is regularly tested for residues on an ongoing basis as part of quality assurance and compliance monitoring.”

2. Antimicrobial resistance

According to Sherry, of greater concern than residues is the issue of antimicrobial resistance, which for many reasons, has become a global health issue. As the use of antimicrobials continues, for people and animals, there is increasing development of bacteria that are resistant to them.

“There is a potential for the presence of bacteria on meat or in the environment which carry resistance genes for particular antimicrobials, and this relates to the possibility that these bacteria could multiply or infect people,” she said.

The role of continued research and monitoring

“The above concerns are actively addressed through continued research, regulatory requirements, veterinary oversight, antimicrobial stewardship practices, and producers’ commitment to provide safe and nutritious beef,” noted Sherry. “In addition, appropriate cooking of beef further protects against these concerns by inactivating any residues present, or by killing any viable microorganisms,” she stressed.

The Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance (CIPARS) monitors and describes antimicrobial resistance (and some use) in retail meat, on farm and in animal and human populations.

Stay tuned for part three of this series, in which we’ll discuss how food safety is ensured when antibiotics are used in cattle – and ongoing changes to regulation.

In the meantime, check out part one, ‘Antimicrobials and food production: 4 reasons antibiotics are given to beef cattle’.

Antimicrobials and food production – 4 reasons antibiotics are given to beef cattle

Some Canadians have questions about antibiotic use in farmed animals. In an earlier post, we looked at the science behind the use of hormones in beef cattle. This week, in part one of a three-part series, we’re exploring another hot topic – antibiotics.

First up, an explanation of what antibiotics are, and how and why they are used.

Antibiotic or antimicrobial?

An antimicrobial is any agent that is used to treat microbial infection. An antibiotic is one type of antimicrobial, specifically made from natural microorganisms.

When looking at the safety or issues of using antibiotics in beef cattle, it makes the most sense to discuss the use of antimicrobials as a whole, rather than only antibiotics.

We spoke with Dr. Sherry Hannon, research team lead and veterinary epidemiologist at Feedlot Health Management Services Ltd. to learn more about the use of antimicrobials in feedlot animals.

Sherry explained that there are four main reasons for the use of antimicrobials in feedlots:

#1 To treat disease

“Diseases such as respiratory disease, arthritis and other lameness, abscesses, etc., are effectively treated with antimicrobials in injectable or oral form,” said Sherry.

#2 After surgery or injury

Antimicrobials are used to prevent infection in individual animals after specific events.

#3 As a preventative

Antimicrobials are sometimes used when animals have been exposed to disease, or unfavourable environmental conditions, and are at risk from an outbreak of infectious disease. They are also fed to groups of cattle at specific times to help prevent common diseases.

“Based on clinical field trials, we know that specific groups of animals may already be sick by the time they reach the feedlot after weaning, co-mingling in auction markets, and transport,” explained Sherry. “Antimicrobials help us prevent outbreaks that could spread through the herd.”

#4 To improve growth and production

The use of antimicrobials have historically been used to improve rumen function and enhance growth and production of meat, but this use is declining, and becoming increasingly regulated, due to the risk of antimicrobial resistance. We will discuss antimicrobial resistance further in part two of this series.

When antimicrobials are withheld

When an animal is sick, or at risk from disease, it would be cruel to withhold treatment.

“There are three main health implications when antimicrobials are withheld,” Sherry noted:

    • Poor animal welfare – animals would become sick or die.
    • Greater potential for spreading of disease among animals in a pen.
    • Food safety concerns increase because animals are more likely to have infections when sent to slaughter.

Stay tuned for next week when we will discuss the causes for concern around the use of antimicrobials in beef cattle, and what’s being done to address them.

In the meantime, check out ‘Beef and hormones: what the science says’.

Canadian beef in demand: feeding the European market and why it matters

Global trade is a mark of success for any business, and that holds true for the beef industry as well.

One market that has not reached its full potential is Europe, where Canadian beef is in high demand. To learn more about this market, and why more Canadian beef doesn’t head east across the Atlantic, we spoke with Jason Hagel of Hagel Feeders.

His feedlot is one of the few in Canada that feeds cattle bound for the European market. The business was started by Jason’s grandfather in the mid 1950s and now feeds about 5,000 head of cattle each year, in addition to a cow/calf operation comprising about 1,000 head. Hagel Feeders can be found just east of Linden, Alberta.

In 2005, Jason was approached by a group of ranchers who had started a brand called Prairie Heritage. They were looking for a feedlot for their beef, which was supplied to local restaurants and grocery stores. The brand was based on providing beef grown by certified beef producers, with an environmental farm plan in place, and without the use of growth promotants or antibiotics. Success in the domestic market was eventually followed by expansion into the European market. “Even though tariffs made the product expensive to the European consumer,” said Jason, “they were hungry for it. About one-third of our product was being shipped there.”

In 2014, the Prairie Heritage brand was sold to One Earth Farms, but Hagel Feedlots continues to feed the cattle.

The cost of European beef exports, and why they matter

The main requirement for export to Europe is that the beef must be produced without the use of growth promotants. “It costs about 18 to 22 per cent more to finish an animal without growth promotants,” explained Jason, “because they take longer to finish, and require more feed.”

The animals must also be segregated, and RFID technology is required to provide the data needed to guarantee that the animals have been raised and fed as stated.

“Nonetheless, it’s very important for Canada to stretch out her arms to countries other than the U.S.,” he continued. “We send the majority of our product down there and that reduces our bargaining power when it comes to price. We have two American packing plants in Alberta, which have no real interest in going to anywhere other than the U.S. because it’s easy and they can buy a premium product for a lower price.”

CETA and tariffs: beef industry implications

The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), ratified in February 2017, is designed to encourage free trade between Canada and Europe. However, Canada already enjoys a tariff-free quota for beef exports. “Right now we don’t send much beef,” said Jason, “so we don’t even reach those quotas. It’s not because we don’t have the beef to send, but because there are not enough packing plants that are qualified to send beef to Europe.”

With the opening of Harmony Beef in Balzac, Alberta, later this month, that may well change. Stay tuned for an upcoming post in which we will feature this new business and discuss the implications for trade and for the Alberta economy.

Europe’s not the only market where our beef is in demand. Check out this earlier post to learn how people in 58 countries enjoy Canadian beef.

Why traceability is making Canada a world-leader in beef production

In previous posts on this blog we have seen how technology is helping improve feedlot efficiencies, and could even help with the labour crisis.

The technology responsible for much of these developments is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and this week we’re going to take a look at how this technology is used in the Canadian Cattle Identification Program.

To learn more, we spoke with Kori Maki-Adair, communications manager at the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA).

“The use of RFID tags in Canada’s cattle identification program assists the Canadian cattle industry with the automation of data collection and the ability to maintain the integrity of all information,” said Kori. “In 2003, the entire Canadian cattle industry committed to a transition to this technology, and Canada’s traceability system is now world-renowned for its efficiency and effectiveness.”

What is RFID?

Every cow in Canada is fitted with an ear tag prior to leaving its farm of origin. Each tag contains an approved RFID transponder (capable of receiving and transmitting a radio signal), consisting of an encoded chip and antenna.

The tag can provide a permanent record of such basic information as where the cow originally came from, its date of birth, sex, breed and species. But the possibilities are almost endless – the tags can be used for herd management, on-farm record keeping and more. As we saw in ‘How technology is helping improve feedlot efficiencies’, they can also be used to monitor what each individual animal has been fed, and its precise intake.

Why does this ability to track information matter?

The technology gives us the ability to trace an animal through the entire chain of custody (from its farm of origin through every step of the production chain, right to the consumer). It’s a crucial tool in helping to ensure the protection of animal health, public health and food safety. For instance, in the event of a disease outbreak, tracing the origin is fast and simple.

This ability to track how each individual animal has been raised creates absolute confidence in our Canadian product, and has given Canada a reputation as a leader in the field. For retailers and restaurants it means they can make claims about the beef they serve with 100 per cent certainty that they are accurate.

“A strong and credible traceability program will help to ensure Canada remains a leading producer and marketer of beef and dairy cattle, bison and sheep, with a stable demand for products at all times,” said Kori.

How is the program implemented and enforced?

All cattle must be identified with an approved tag before leaving the farm where they were born – and it is prohibited for any operator in the beef supply chain to send, transport or receive an animal not bearing an approved tag. This is enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“Tags are issued to livestock operators through CCIA-authorized tag dealers,” explained Kori. “Each tag is visually marked and electronically embedded with a unique identification number which is allocated by, and subsequently recorded on, CCIA’s Canadian Livestock Tracking System (CLTS) database.” Data from each tag is transmitted to, and stored on the database, using tag readers.

The unique number of any animal’s tag remains active until the point at which the animal is exported, or processed and inspected.

Are the tags reliable?

All approved Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) RFID tags are laboratory and field-tested to a rigid testing framework that embraces international standards,” said Kori. “They are designed to function without battery power, and have the capacity to perform for the lifetime of the animal. In addition, they are designed to function in a variety of climates and through other environmental contaminants that are known to impede line of sight technologies such as bar-codes and dangle tags,” she continued.

If an animal loses its approved tag, it must be replaced with another approved tag.

As we saw in the post ‘McDonald’s verified sustainable beef – what does that mean for Canadians?’, the quality of Canada’s traceability program was a leading factor in McDonald’s Restaurants’ decision to use Canada for their Verified Sustainable Beef Pilot Project.

Stay tuned as we explore more ways technology is being used by Canada’s beef industry.

How people in 58 countries enjoy Canadian beef

In an earlier post on this blog we explored the contribution Alberta’s beef industry makes to our province’s economy. We explained that exports make up an important part of that contribution, because we produce more beef than Canadians eat.

To learn more about beef exports, and where they go, we spoke with Rob Meijer, former president of Canada Beef. “Many agricultural commodities, like beef cattle, have a high dependence on exports,” said Rob, “and every year, Canada exports approximately 45 per cent of its beef production.”

Canada’s main beef export marketsCanadian Beef Exports 2015

Canadian beef is shipped to 58 countries, but 71 per cent goes to the United States. China, Mexico, Japan and Hong Kong together represent another 24 per cent (source: Canadian Cattlemen’s Association).

Market growth

The good news for Canadian beef producers, and for the economy, is that the first half of 2016 saw an 11 per cent increase in exports, by volume. “These increasing export volumes have been supported by larger domestic beef production which is up nine per cent so far this year,” said Rob.

“While new markets do occasionally open to Canadian beef,” he continued, “what is often more significant to the industry is the expansion or liberalization of trade with existing markets. For example, on June 28th of this year, Mexico announced that, effective October 1st, the full range of Canadian beef products will be eligible for import. Then, on July 8th, Taiwan reopened its borders to boneless and bone-in beef from cattle under 30 months of age.”

Both Mexico and Taiwan had previously banned imports of Canadian cattle and beef, after the 2003 outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The resumption of trade is a testament to the fact that the Canadian beef industry produces safe, high quality beef.

Why beef exports matter

Rob explained that exports allow producers to add value to their products by giving them access to customers who use different parts of the carcass than Canadian customers do. “In fact, over the last 10 years, export markets have added an average of $510 per head of additional value,” he said.

For an industry that contributes $33 billion worth of sales of goods and services, either directly or indirectly, to the Canadian economy, it’s clear that exports represent a valuable part of the business. And of course exports allow millions of people across the world to enjoy our beautiful Alberta beef!