buying chicken at your local grocer just got trickier. While other jurisdictions are busy phasing out potentially harmful antibiotics in livestock -- Denmark has banned them entirely and numerous European countries have already abolished at least four types of antibiotics -- Health Canada doesn't seem at all concerned and is making no moves to legislate on their massive use in our food.
This, despite the fact scientists are sounding the alarm about antibiotic resistance and a new resistant bacteria strain, VRE, that is steadily advancing through Canadian cities.
Health advocates are getting increasingly edgy about the feds' lack of initiative in protecting consumers, a tendency that was highlighted by what ought to have been good news: the announcement last month by major poultry producers both here and in the U.S. that they would reduce antibiotics in their birds.
Two large U.S. poultry operations, Tyson Foods and Perdue, announced in February that they would confine their use of antibiotics to diagnosed illnesses instead of using them routinely in feed. "There are so many conflicting studies that it's confusing for consumers. It's easier from a marketing standpoint to just not have to deal with that," says Perdue's Tita Cherrier.
In Canada, Maple Lodge, which supplies KFC and Swiss Chalet, prides itself on not using antibiotics on a regular basis. "We don't inoculate flocks unnecessarily; we do it when we have to," says the company's Kathy Weinhold. "There's a message that it's being used as a regular practice, but it's not."
But health advocates say this move is too little too late and that it's time the feds took charge instead of trailing industry trends.
They point to the province of Quebec, which has had enough concerns about antibiotic use to require a vet to write a prescription each time they are used.
These controls do not apply in the rest of Canada, where "sub-therapeutic antibiotics," as they're called, can be purchased off the shelf and are often used in feed to promote growth and resistance to disease.
Certainly, the Chicken Farmers of Canada don't think these pharmaceuticals need much discussion.
"We don't have a position on antibiotics in poultry, because we haven't had a problem," says the organization's Lisa Bishop. "Antibiotic residues have not been found in decades and decades."
That ought to be reassuring, except that Health Canada's Dianne Kirkpatrick, head of the Veterinary Drug Directorate, says, "Government hasn't had the capacity to measure" antibiotic residues in chicken.
"We are now working to develop the methodology to conduct some monitoring for the resistant micro-organisms," she says.
She admits, too, that enforcement of proper use of the drugs is by and large voluntary.
In fact, Health Canada has not considered antibiotic resistance at all in its approval of veterinary drugs.
Health advocates say Health Canada routinely bows to pressure from drug companies to speed through the approval of drugs added to animal feed.
Indeed, Kirkpatrick reveals just how tied economics are to the health and safety of Canadians.
"If other countries can review submissions in much shorter time frames, then that industry has a competitive advantage," Kirkpatrick says.
This is exactly the kind of comment that infuriates health activists worried about Health Canada's catering to industry.
"The fact that a Health Canada person who is mandated by law to protect the public health is quoting to you industry competitive concerns indicates what they think their mandate is," says Michael McBane from the Canadian Health Coalition. "There's virtually no control on the use of drugs in agriculture. The government thinks its job is to encourage sales and marketing of pharmaceutical agents."
But while some far-seeing companies are limiting antibiotic use, the industry may be opening up a whole new set of problems in its search for the perfect bird, one that's resistant to disease.
According to Poultry Industry Council chair Deborah Whale, work has already begun on a $1.5-million program at Guelph University to develop a high-immune-response fowl that will not need any medication.
But fine-tuning the tech cannot solve the issue of stressed animals in overcrowded, over-managed food factories.
Dr. Michelle Brill-Edwards, a former senior physician at Health Canada who quit over the influence of the pharmaceutical industry in the drug approval process, puts it this way: "We're spending millions of dollars to solve a problem through technology that creates huge unknown risks to society rather than spend much less money to simply raise animals better.
"It's a way to keep the money machine rolling along regardless of what's good for the animals or what's good for humans."