Farmers will need a prescription to obtain veterinary antibiotics for their livestock starting in December this year under federal regulatory changes.
The changes mean the agricultural industry will be required to play its part in reducing the use of antibiotics in Canada and around the world, says retired University of Guelph professor John Prescott.
According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, antibiotics are used in livestock to treat, control and prevent bacterial disease, improve feed efficiency, promote growth and to maintain animal health and welfare.
Natasha Gauthier, media relations officer for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Ontario, said "medically important" antimicrobials are the drugs for which farmers will need a prescription. Antimicrobials include antibiotics.
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Health Canada defines "medically important" antimicrobials in terms of whether they are used for human medicine and whether there are alternatives.
A drug used to treat serious bacterial infections in humans is considered more important than those not used for such infections. A drug with no alternatives will also be considered more important than one with alternatives.
Prescott says the concern is that antibiotic overuse in animals is leading to what is known as antimicrobial resistance, which can lead to diseases or "super bugs" that are hard to treat in humans.
"Agriculture should recognize that it has a part to play. It's a small part," Prescott said Thursday.
"Farmers need to see this as part of their societal obligation. They need to understand why it's being done, accept it, embrace it and work with it," he said.
"Everybody has to reduce their use of antibiotics to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics. This is agriculture stepping up to the plate."
"Farmers need to see this as part of their societal obligation." - John Prescott
Prescott, who taught in the field of bacterial diseases, told CBC's Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition that antimicrobial resistance is of growing concern.
A recent study commissioned by the U.K. government estimated that 10 million people will die a year by 2050 from antimicrobial resistance unless a global strategy is launched now to deal with the problem. Antimicrobial resistance could kill more people than cancer by then, according to the study.
Prescott said the changes, part of a national plan by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, should be viewed in a global context.
"The focus is not just on agriculture. It's also very much on what's going on in human medicine," he said.
"We have to act now. It's a bit like climate change. We have to start working now. This is part of a much broader strategy. Agricultural use of antibiotics is just a part of this and trying to find ways to reduce and control is what this is all about.
"The concern is that antibiotic use in animals will lead to resistant bacteria and the resistant bacteria can get into people through the food chain and that can make diseases in people more difficult to treat."
Changes for Dec. 1, 2018
Under changes announced by the federal government, as of Dec. 1, 2018, farmers will have to get a prescription from a veterinarian for prescription drugs and medicated feed, which is livestock feed that contains a prescription drug.
As well, changes will be made to the labels of what is known as medically important antimicrobials, drugs considered important in the treatment of serious bacterial infections. Growth promotion claims will be removed.
"They are going to have to work closely with their veterinarians to ensure that the antibiotics are used appropriately and that they are used when the benefits are clear and substantial."
Changes mean closer relationship with vets
Prescott said the changes mean there will be a lot more oversight by veterinarians of the use of antibiotics in livestock. Veterinarians will be writing more prescriptions and they will have to have a closer relationship with farmers, he said.
That relationship will have to be a genuine one with an understanding of the need for a prescription and follow up.
"For me, this is a very good news story for agriculture. And I hope that farmers will understand the reasons for it and embrace it."
Farmers, feed organizations to be informed
Gauthier said Health Canada will inform farmers and feed organizations of the impending regulatory changes.
A prescription drug list, which lists veterinary products for which a prescription will be necessary, is already available on its website.