To be clear, we’re talking about what’s on our plates, not about Canada’s newly legal and ubiquitous weed (granted, some clever chefs may have combined the two). Hot on the heels of Nicolette’s Drugs vs. “Bugs”: Antimicrobial Resistance and the Power of Stewardship, let’s shift gears from medicine cabinet to meal.


For the fantastic feasts and where to find them (Sorry, J.K Rowling), ’tis the season of plenty, whatever you celebrate. Unless you’re a vegan, there may be brisket at Hanukkah, or ham at Christmas, or goat biryani at Eid-ul-adah* … plus let’s not forget all the non-denominational festivities like New Years, Thanksgiving and Festivus (for the rest of us). The common theme here is a plentiful amount of meat. Let’s look at what happened before it got to our tables.

The not-so-well-kept secret in agriculture is that farmers can save money by raising more animals in less space. I remember the size of my first apartment … same goes for the COFAs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). Less space means sanitary issues. Sanitary issues mean illness. Rather than wait for some animals to get sick and treat them, many farmers dose their herds with antibiotics (ABX) “preventatively” and regularly, and even use animal feed with ABX mixed in.

Surprisingly, antibiotics also make animals grow faster, so it takes less time (and money) to raise them. That’s such a tempting offer for farmers. Because of this “magical” ABX power, not surprisingly, about 82% of antibiotics used in Canada are in agriculture. Though some of it is necessary, just like when you or I develop an infection, a lot is what they call “indiscriminate” … preventative or for growth-enhancing purposes.

What farmers gain in efficiency, they lose to the “superbugs” they helped develop. Scientific evidence shows that bacteria are developing antibiotic resistance as a result of ABX use in animal agriculture. These bacterial “superbugs”, resistant to multiple types of antibiotics, can affect both humans and animals.


Why is that a big problem? As Adeline mentioned back in The Drugs in my Food’s Food …

Antibiotic resistance is a major threat to human health … for decades we’ve been squandering one of our most precious medicine, our best weapon in the fight against deadly infections. If we continue our current misuse of antibiotics, we may soon enter a post-antibiotic era. What does that mean to you and me? For starters, transplants will be impossible, heart infections could be deadly, and giving birth will become a lot more dangerous.

So what can we do?

As individuals, look for “antibiotic free” if/when we buy meat. Make sure the meat says “antibiotic free”, and not a wishy-washy claim like “100% natural” (which sounds lovely but means nothing legally-speaking). Yes, it may be more expensive, but extremely worthwhile.

We’ve heard that 40% of all food gets wasted … so if we buy less-but-better meat, and make sure not to waste it, we might come out ahead. It couldn’t hurt to try more plant-based meals while we’re at it, not just for the antibiotics, but for the environmental impacts:

Carbon emissions per person for each diet type image credit: Shrink That Footprint

As nations, we can outlaw indiscriminate use. A lot already have  … hello Europe! Sweden banned it for growth-enhancing purposes way back in 1986. And we have some promising news here in Canada

As of December 1, 2018, all Medically Important Antimicrobials (MIAs) for veterinary use will be sold by prescription only. The responsible use of MIAs is intended to preserve their effectiveness and minimize the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance.

Before this switch, farmers could buy as many antibiotics as they wanted and use them whenever. Now no one can buy ABX without a veterinarian’s prescription, and vets can’t prescribe to promote growth. Though some farmers may have stockpiled, this will help future herds, and the future effectiveness of antibiotics for all. That’s definitely something to celebrate.

Cheers and happy holidays!


*Though Eid-ul-adah is technically in August this year, it is included for its major focus on meat. Eid-ul-adah translates as ‘Feast of the Sacrifice’ (thanks Farzana for the consultation!). People give one third of the animal to the needy; another third to relatives and the final third for home.

Many traditional feast dishes in Buddhism and Hinduism are already vegetarian (and delish!), so not included here.