Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are sold at no extra charge when Canadians buy chicken at the grocery store. CBC-TV’s Marketplace bought 100 packages of chicken from supermarkets in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. When they tested the samples for disease-causing bugs, they found that two-thirds of them were contaminated with bacteria that “were resistant to at least one antibiotic.” It did not matter if the chickens bore labels such as “antibiotic-free” or “organic.” Superbugs were happy to thrive on any chicken.
Canadians were shocked. They sent dozens of letters and e-mails to the federal Ministry of Agriculture, demanding limits on antibiotics given to poultry. Minister Gerry Ritz’s office responded with the usual bland reassurances.†CBC reports, “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.”
The Ministry of Agriculture also responded directly to CBC. According to researcher†Gabriel Piette, the Treasury Board is spending $4 million to study options for more natural feed supplements such as antioxidants, probiotic bacteria, cranberry extract or essential oils. Results will be made available in 2013.
Canadians Hungry for Factory-Farmed Chickens
The research sounds promising, and certainly cutting back on unnecessary antibiotic use is important. However, Canadian demand for factory-farmed chicken puts little pressure on conventional producers to stop using pharmaceuticals.
Statistics Canada reports Canadians ate an average of 16.88 kg (37.14 lb.) of chicken in 1980. Twenty years later that rose to 31.10 kg. (68.42 lb.). Assuming an average of 1.5 kg (3.3 lb.) per chicken, the average Canadian eats the meat of 20.73 chickens every year. Multiply that by 33.7 million Canadians, and producers need to raise 700 million chickens to satisfy demand. Add to that commercially-raised laying hens, turkeys and what Statistics Canada lumps together as “fowl” and the amount of antibiotics reaching dinner tables, even in trace amounts, is staggering.
Although people are increasingly worried about antibiotics in meat and the evolution of superbugs, the demand for chicken is not falling. Consumers have power. Until concern is translated into action, producers will have little incentive to adopt healthier standards.
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