Where Walmart goes, others follow. That’s why when the retail giant announced last month that it was asking its U.S. suppliers to begin cutting back and reporting on the use of antibiotics in food animals, the food world listened.
Walmart is urging its suppliers of meat, dairy, seafood and eggs to voluntarily decrease the amount of antibiotics they use in their animals for non-health reasons, such as to promote growth or feed efficiency. The move is prompted in part, says Walmart, by rising consumer concern about the treatment of food animals, and goes along with a call to the industry to follow the internationally recognized “Five Freedoms” of animal welfare. In the case of antibiotics, the concern is the rising risk of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in humans, as contributed through the food chain.
The risk of antimicrobial resistance is real and well documented. It is a global issue, and it means that we are losing the ability to treat new and potentially more harmful infections. In Canada monitoring and reporting on AMR is now the responsibility of the Canadian Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System (CARSS), an organization established by the Public Health Agency of Canada to “strengthen the coordination and integration of antimicrobial resistance and antimicrobial use activities and information in Canada.” CARSS’ first report came out this March, and the results are not encouraging.
While the report shows that since 2006 the total amount of antimicrobials sold for animals has stayed the same, that number is 42 times higher than the nation with the lowest use, Norway. In fact, out of 27 countries Canada ranked 21st in terms of antibiotics sold for animal use. In 2013 roughly 1.6 million kg of antimicrobial active ingredients for veterinarian use were sold in Canada. Of that number, says CARSS, just 0.6 per cent were for companion animal use, while 99.4 per cent were for food-production. Most worrying is the fact that 68 per cent of those drugs were in the same classes as those used in human medicine.
As a next step CARSS recommends educational campaigns and stewardship programs that will encourage the industry to voluntarily decrease the use of antimicrobials provided unnecessarily. While Walmart’s request is also voluntary, its reach will likely affect other retailers, and by extension producers, both in the U.S. and Canada.