In health, trends rarely result in lasting change. Diets come and go, foods such as kale have a limited shelf life of popularity and no one really knows whether coffee is actually good or bad for you. The trouble lies in the association of scientific evidence, which admittedly can be contradictory, with lifestyle choices. Yet over the past few years, a health trend has emerged that may beat the odds: Antibiotic abstinence in agriculture appears to be growing and, thanks to a recent move by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, may bring "antibiotic-free" meat into the mainstream there.
Back in 2013, the FDA announced a directive to reduce the amount of antimicrobial agents used in agriculture. The goal was to prevent the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria and hold off the post-antibiotic era.
Though hailed as long overdue – calls for the removal of antibiotics in agriculture had been voiced for nearly a half-century – there was a catch. Companies were not mandated to remove their products but instead asked to do so voluntarily. Still, a few weeks ago, 25 major companies, including the well-known names Bayer and Novartis, agreed to follow through with the request.
For many, the idea of pharmaceutical companies following a trend may seem odd. Yet these companies understand the nature of societal change and have decided this particular direction is worth following. Perhaps more interesting is the fact the driving force behind their decision lies not in the heavy-handedness of government regulations but in another, more convincing strength: the power of the consumer wallet.
For the past 15 years, research has consistently shown the presence of antibiotic-resistant organisms in meat products sold to the consumer. Yet little attention was paid to this finding. Then, in 2011, the same year a bacterium resistant to all antibiotics was discovered, the FDA released statistics on the amount of antibiotics used, and found agriculture used nearly four times as much as medicine. Considering that these medical marvels were initially only intended for human use, this statistic raised the alarm for many in the industry and changed the landscape for consumers.
Within the year, the call for meat products from animals not treated with antibiotics grew. Individual consumers began to shift their choices, quickly followed by local restaurants hoping to draw in health-conscious diners. Soon, chain organizations including Chipotle restaurants and the Hyatt Hotel empire began to advertise their adoption of the choice. Before long, a website called Fix Antibiotics went online. Its goal was to highlight all the locations in the United States serving or selling meat raised without antibiotics. By the time the FDA made the announcement, there was little doubt antibiotic abstinence was going mainstream in the country.
Now it's Canada's turn.
Currently, there is no government mandate to curb or restrict the use of antimicrobials in agriculture. Earlier this week, The Globe and Mail learned Health Canada is reviewing the American situation; however, there appears to be no similar action in the pipeline. The department did offer encouragement for prudent use of antimicrobials. But as history has shown, encouragement without legislation is akin to a bite without teeth.
There is, however, a way to push the government and companies to rethink this position. Taking a page from our friends in the U.S., we can mainstream antibiotic-free farming by putting our money where our mouths are. Then, we can put pressure on elected officials to enact change.
Thankfully, the opportunity to purchase these meats is already present. Many independent farms offer meats from animals raised without antibiotics. Some chain grocery stores have also taken to the trend offering their own lines. Even the giant Maple Leaf Foods offers the choice – and has seen its profits rise as a result.
Eventually, the government will take notice of the pocketbook pressure on the private sector and find itself with few alternatives.
It may even associate this movement with the understanding that reducing or removing antibiotics from animals is good for everyone both directly, through a healthier food supply, and indirectly, by increasing the lifespan of antibiotics in medicine.
Regardless of the reason, Health Canada will come to realize, much like its American counterpart, that the time has come to give the trend of antibiotic abstinence in agriculture the respect it demands, the legislation it deserves and the action we all need. The global threat of antibiotic resistance needs to be stopped before we lose our most important weapon against infectious disease. An urgent response from Health Canada is our only option to ensure a safer future.
Jason Tetro is a Toronto-based microbiologist with more than 25 years experience in research. He is a self-described germs relationship therapist and strives to improve humanity's bond with the unseen world. He writes for national and international media outlets and is often found on social media where he shares his unique views on microbial health. His science bestseller, The Germ Code, is out now. You can follow him on Twitter at @JATetro