Cattle farmers say new antibiotics prescription rules will be costly

New federal rules that kick in on Dec. 1 will set limits on farmers’ abilities to procure antibiotics for their livestock.

New rules meant to curb antibiotics resistance

Darlene Stein and her border collie Jill manage a herd of ewes at her sheep farm near Barrhead, Alta. Stein worries that changes in how antibiotics are dispensed will lead to higher costs and less access to the medication. (Terry Reith/CBC)

New federal rules kicking in on Dec. 1 will set limits on farmers' abilities to procure antibiotics for their livestock, a move intended to curb antibiotic resistance in humans and animals, and provide more oversight by veterinary professionals.

But some producers are concerned it will just become more expensive to care for their herds.

Since 2014, the World Health Organization has recommended countries take measures that would curb antibiotics resistance. The WHO defines it as the ability of micro-organisms such as bacteria to stop antimicrobials from working against them.

The organization says that resistance can transfer to humans through meat ingestion or handling treated animals, making it a "big threat to global health."

In 2017, WHO conducted a large-scale review of different studies that showed reducing antibiotics led to decreased prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals by about 15 per cent, and multidrug-resistant bacteria by 24 to 32 per cent.

The same review noted "the evidence of effect on human beings was more limited and less robust."

Under the impending Health Canada regulation, about 300 products will only become available to farmers once they get a prescription from a veterinarian.

Depending on the province, farmers will then have to buy those antibiotics from either the prescribing veterinarian, a pharmacy or a feed mill.

Worries about impact

Mandatory vet visits are a concern for Darlene Stein, who owns 600 sheep at Oxbow Ranch near Barrhead, Alta., about 120 km northwest of Edmonton.

"In the case of minor species like sheep, it's a little more challenging than, for example, a beef cow," Stein said.

Stein's farm has a flock of about 600 sheep, and produces about 800 lambs per year. (Terry Reith/CBC News)

With meat sold by the pound, she estimated a single sheep is only worth about $200 to $300 — or about the cost of going to see the veterinarian. As a point of comparison, she said, "It's pretty easy to justify loading up a cow [into a truck], that's worth $2,500, to take to the vet."

Stein is also concerned about the scarcity of veterinarians, pointing out there aren't that many who care for small ruminants. The Alberta Lamb Producers group maintains a list of 24 veterinarians who have expressed an interest in caring for that type of animal across the province. Meanwhile, Stein estimated there are around 1,800 lamb producers in Alberta.

She also pointed out the rules may leave room for possible conflict of interest among veterinarians. In Alberta, they would be in a position to both prescribe and sell medication.

"It opens the door for the opportunity to manipulate for personal gain," Stein said. "There are people that don't have maybe the most ... benevolent intentions, and maybe they would be more about the financial gain."

Stein is accustomed to purchasing antibiotics and treating animals herself. She'll soon be required to get a veterinary prescription. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Some rules different according to province

That arrangement does not exist everywhere in Canada. Though the regulation is federal, it affects provinces differently.

In B.C., as long as farmers have a veterinarian's prescription, they will be able to buy antibiotics from veterinary pharmacies and medicated feed from a feed mill.

Saskatchewan has only one veterinary pharmacy, so farmers will have to buy their prescription drugs from veterinary clinics.

In Quebec, the federal change won't mean much due to similar existing laws. Producers there can take veterinary prescriptions for antibiotics to regular pharmacies, provided the latter have the stock to dispense, and they can pick up medicated feed from feed mills, as long as they have prescriptions.

In Ontario, farmers will depend on veterinarians for distribution. Legislation allows for veterinary pharmacies, but none currently exist.

Veterinarians defend changes

Veterinary associations are welcoming the changes.

The Ontario Medical Veterinary Association co-created a website underlining the importance of the new rules, noting "without action, this growing threat will continue to affect our ability to treat human and animal illnesses with the drugs we are used to using."

The group's Quebec counterpart praised Canada for taking these steps in a recent letter to the editor in the French-language newspaper Le Devoir. It noted Quebec enacted similar legislation in 1984.

Veterinarian Trevor Hook, who works in Ponoka, Alta., and conducts livestock checkups, is a fan of the stronger oversight.

"If we don't have antibiotics to treat these infections, then people could potentially die," Hook said.

Ponoka, Alta., veterinarian Trevor Hook believes there needs to be stronger oversight of how antibiotics are used in livestock. (Peter Evans/CBC)

He added veterinarians are better qualified to prescribe the right antibiotics in proper dosage than store clerks who can currently dispense them, simply because of their formal education and training.

"I think [a veterinarian's] advice is much more valuable and will be in the interest of public health and the welfare and state of the producers' farm," Hook said.

He did acknowledge the potential for conflicts of interest in jurisdictions where veterinarians would both prescribe and sell medication.

Vendors unhappy

In Alberta, restricting who can dispense the medication means removing it from the hands of those currently selling it.

The farming stores run by the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) have started receiving less inventory over the last year in anticipation of the change, and they are not happy about it.

"We actually do support increased oversight by veterinarians," said Rob Giguere, vice-president of commercial agribusiness for UFA. "What we have issue with is the limiting of the dispensing of these products to just veterinarians and pharmacists."

Giguere pointed out there are already some checks and balances in place in the province to prevent abuse. UFA stores are officially licensed to sell antibiotics products, and whoever buys them must have government-issued identification numbers as well.

Rob Giguere, vice president of agribusiness at United Farmers of Alberta, expects antibiotic dispensing changes will lead to higher costs, especially for smaller producers. (Terry Reith/CBC)

"When you limit where you can buy product, you would expect tighter supply, higher prices," Giguere said. He also cited livestock producers' concerns for establishing new relationships with veterinarians. "[Veterinarians] have to go out and assess the herd, and producers are being charged for that."

"I think that prices are going to affect everybody," he said. "Where it's really going to hurt the most are the smaller producers."

Additional reporting by Terry Reith


Raffy Boudjikanian

Senior reporter

Raffy Boudjikanian is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He has also worked in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.