The federal government is funding a team of 16 scientists to try to figure out how farmers can use fewer antibiotics in the chickens, pigs and cows Canadians eat.

Antibiotics are used in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth.

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Dr. Yazdan Mirzanejad, left, who started a clinic to battle superbugs at Surrey Memorial Hospital in B.C., speaks with the CBC's Erica Johnson. (CBC)

In one experiment, scientists are replacing antibiotics with mixtures of antioxidants and probiotic bacteria. Other experiments include giving animals cranberry extract to treat intestinal necrosis, and trying essential oils as immune boosters.

Gabriel Piette, a researcher with Agriculture Canada who is involved in the experiment exploring alternatives to antibiotic use, told CBC-TV's Marketplace that the Treasury Board is spending $4 million on various projects across the country.

The research will wrap up in 2013.

The experiments on alternative treatments are revealed in a letter signed by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, and sent to members of the public who wrote letters of concern to the federal government after viewing a Marketplace episode about the overuse of antibiotics in chickens

In that episode, Marketplace tested 100 samples of chicken from major grocery stores across Canada and found widespread contamination with superbugs — bacteria resistant to antibiotics crucial to human health.

Viewer comments

  • "The Europeans have banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed. I think the same must happen in Canada." 
  • "We need urgent legislation to control the misuse/abuse of vital antibiotics before they become entirely useless."

The letter was obtained by Marketplace through an Access to Information Request.  Included in the material were dozens of letter and emails from Canadians who had viewed Marketplace, and were asking the government to place limits on the use of antibiotics in poultry farming.

There is no federal program to track just how often or how many antibiotics are fed to feed animals, despite calls for such a program from numerous environmental and health experts.  

Ritz's letter does not address demands for legislation curbing the use of antibiotics, nor does it comment on viewers' concerns that antibiotics are often fed to chickens to make them grow fatter, more quickly. 

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The overuse of antibiotics in feed animals such as chickens is blamed for the drugs having no effect on seriously ill humans. (Canadian Press)

Of the 100 chicken samples tested by Marketplace, two-thirds were contaminated with superbugs. Studies have documented that when humans come into contact with those bacteria, they can also become resistant to antibiotics. 

At B.C.'s Surrey Memorial Hospital, Dr. Yazdan Mirzanejad is finding that increasingly, antibiotics are not working on seriously ill people. "I feel desperate, horrified, that I was not able to do what I was supposed to do," he told Marketplace. 

He blames the overuse of antibiotics in feed animals.

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"As long as we continue to do antibiotics feeding to the livestock, this is going to happen. And it's going to get worse," he said.

In the United States, a scathing report released recently by the Government Accountability Office accused federal officials of doing little to monitor antibiotic use on farms. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that in the U.S., livestock consume 80 per cent of the country's antibiotics.   

Critics have suggested that one way to prevent disease is to limit overcrowded conditions for animals on Canadian farms.