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Behind “raised without antibiotics” food labels

May 3, 2018

You’ve seen it in ads on TV, in the grocery store, in restaurants all over, and it sounds like a pretty good idea: food that was “raised without antibiotics”. This is becoming one of the biggest food label trends we see today. These businesses boast that their meat, eggs, or dairy come from farms that don’t use antibiotics on their animals. But what does it mean for the animals, and what does it achieve for human health? Is it important to buy foods that carry an “antibiotic-free” claim?

Why are antibiotics in the spotlight?

There are some concerns that using antibiotics on farms means they end up in our food. However, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulates this. By law, animals must be free of antibiotics before their meat, milk or eggs enter our food system. So, if the issue isn’t the possibility of ingesting antibiotics from animal products, why the hype?

It’s all about antibiotic resistance. Many antibiotics used on animals are also used in human medicine. Bacteria, the target of antibiotics, are famously quick at adapting to resist these treatments.

The problem in some farming industries is the practice of using low doses of antibiotics on healthy animals over an extended period of time. This prevents disease and boosts growth rates, but it is also a perfect way to build antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.

Constant low doses of antibiotics kill the weaker strains bacteria, while the stronger bacteria that survive continue to multiply and form new resistant strains. Resistant strains of bacteria can then pass from farms to humans via food, contact between animals and people, or by other means.

What can be done about antibiotic resistance?

The Canadian medical system struggles with antibiotic resistant infections numbering in the tens of thousands every year. These infections cost many lives and millions of dollars. One solution is to limit the use of antibiotics on farm animals if the antibiotics are vital to human medicine. Other solutions include being more selective about which antibiotics to use on farm, and reducing reliance on antibiotics as a whole.

Over the last several years, Health Canada and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) have developed a plan to counteract antibiotic resistance. Resulting regulations and restrictions focus on what types of antibiotics farmers can use and when.

Effective December 1, 2018, all Canadian farmers wishing to buy antibiotics that are also vital to human medicine must first get a prescription from a licenced veterinarian. This ensures farmers find different tactics for managing animal health as a first step, such as employing good biosecurity and well-managed living conditions, instead of relying on antibiotics to prevent disease.

Another key factor of this initiative is ending the practice of giving antibiotics to healthy animals for disease prevention or growth promotion. Antibiotics should only be used on sick animals when a veterinary prescription has been given. Using antibiotics only when needed helps prevent the creation of antibiotic resistant bugs.

Consumers are being bombarded with messaging that all antibiotics used on animals are bad for us. But in fact, the solution is responsible use of antibiotics. Responsible use ensures that antibiotic resistance does not become a greater threat to the human population. It also means sick animals can still receive the treatment they need to get well again.

What does being “raised without antibiotics” mean for the animals?

A common misconception about the “raised without antibiotics” claim is that the animals had a better life and did not get sick. In reality, they may still have gotten sick but were not given antibiotics as treatment. No animal welfare improvements are guaranteed when you see this claim alone on a food label or restaurant menu.

These labels don’t actually help if you’re looking for assurance that you’re buying from farms with high standards of animal welfare. Be sure to look for SPCA Certified or another credible third party animal welfare certification. The SPCA Certified program does allow the use of antibiotics for treating sick animals. But the program prohibits the use of antibiotics on healthy animals for growth promotion or disease prevention. As an initiative of the BC SPCA, the SPCA Certified program truly focuses on animal welfare to give you the assurance you need to make ethical food choices.

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