A recent CBC Marketplace investigation provided dramatic evidence that Canada's food supply is badly tainted with superbugs -- deadly diseases that are resistant to antibiotics. Through programs like this one the public is increasingly becoming aware of this fact, and concerned that Health Canada does not seem to be doing its job.
The CBC investigators found that two-thirds of all chicken samples they purchased in Canadian supermarkets were contaminated with salmonella, campylobacter or e-coli -- and that in every single case these bugs were resistant to at least some antibiotics.
One sample was resistant to ten out of the twelve antibiotics tested, and according to our analysis (see the attached spreadsheet) 40% of the contaminated samples were resistant to six or more antibiotics. Thus deadly superbugs are routinely being brought into our homes, where even with the strictest hygiene they invade our kitchens and put us and our children at risk.
The root cause of this problem is anti-microbial resistance (AMR) caused by massive overuse of antibiotics in the food industry. The CBC established that animals are given about 1,600 thousand kg of antibiotics per year in Canada, compared with only about 200 thousand kg given to humans -- manufacturers make the bulk of their profits from animal use. These antibiotics promote fast animal growth and can halve the time it takes for an animal to be ready for market -- so there is a huge financial incentive among producers to use them in this way. However, the number of new antibiotics being developed is in steady decline as the pharmaceutical companies focus on more profitable drugs: experts predict that if overuse in the food industry continues we will soon run out of antibiotics that work, as more resistant disease strains develop.
If allowed to happen, this would be a public health catastrophe, wiping out the greatest medical advance of the past century and taking us back to an era when people routinely died of common diseases such as pneumonia. Even routine surgery such as hip replacements would become virtually impossible without effective methods of preventing infection.
Your committee should be asking what is Health Canada's strategy for dealing with this real and increasingly imminent threat. Thus far this agency seems to be doing nothing effective, and even helping the food industry's charge towards a superbug-infested future. Health Canada seems to function these days as a promoter for the profitability of the pharmaceutical and chemical industries even when such promotion results in a violation of its central legal mandate: to protect the health of Canadians.
You may recall that in 1998 three Health Canada scientists testified to the Senate that Health Canada management was pressurizing them to approve drugs into the food chain without the legally-required proof of safety. These scientists were internationally hailed as heroes and their revelations led to the now-discredited bovine growth hormone for dairy cattle being banned in most developed countries. However, all three were fired in 2004, and Health Canada immediately approved various products that they had been holding back for safety reasons, including Baytril (enrofloxacin) for animal use.
Enrofloxacin is one of the few antibiotics left that is effective against most strains of these deadly diseases. But improper use in the food industry will ensure that resistant strains soon emerge among intensively-farmed animals -- and arrive soon after in our homes via supermarkets. This problem of anti-microbial resistance has been extensively studied and documented and the solutions are clear, yet Health Canada still refuses to act.
It is time now to ban antibiotic overuse and abuse in food-producing animals. That was what EU did more than 10 years ago. That was what WHO had recommended. That is what the responsible Health Canada Committee recommended. That is what Canadian people want. That is what the Canadian National Farmers Union wants. That is now Health Canada must do now.
We call upon your committee to require Health Canada to explain its inaction on this vitally important matter.
The CBC Marketplace documentary can be viewed online here and is highly recommended (22 minutes).
Attachment: Spreadsheet containing lab results and analysis