by BETTER FARMING STAFF
A loophole that allows livestock producers to import livestock drugs and medicines can result in considerable savings particularly “if you have a sizable herd,” says Paul Stiles, the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association’s assistant manager.
Veterinarians and the organization representing manufacturers and distributors of Canadian animal health products, however, say the own-use provision in Health Canada’s food and drugs regulations poses health risks to food-producing animals, consumers, and results in millions of dollars of lost business every year.
The long-simmering controversy erupted this month following the release of a Canadian Medical Association Journal report that criticized a federal task force recommendation last August that the own-use provision remain while Health Canada studies the issue further.
Task force members couldn’t agree on how to implement a pilot program for a replacement — a restricted import permit program. They recommend closing the loophole after a permanent permit program is ready to roll out. The medical association, Canada’s veterinarians and the Canadian Animal Health Institute want to see the loophole closed now.
Jean Szkotnicki, president of the Canadian Animal Health Institute, an organization that represents the manufacturers and distributors of Canadian animal health products, says in 2006, Canadian farmers imported an estimated $100 million worth of animal health products, including vaccines, to use on their own farms. That same year the business of selling drugs, vaccines and feed additives for use in livestock and poultry generated $500 million in Canada. Of this amount, drugs account for $250-$300 million depending upon whether feed additives are counted as drugs, she says.
Health Canada regulates drugs used in animals; the Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulates vaccines for use in livestock and poultry.
Robert Friendship, a swine specialist and University of Guelph professor, has heard stories of producers importing drugs but hasn’t witnessed any instances and doesn’t know how widespread the practice is. “I’m probably not going to be invited onto the farms that are doing this.”
He says most farmers making use of the provision likely do so to reduce costs.
A 2006 survey by Perth County hog producers estimated Canadian producers spent $1.92 per pig for drugs that cost $0.96 per pig in the United States. The survey, which sampled 10 different products, uncovered price differences ranging from 44 to 242 per cent with the biggest difference being in the price of mycoplasma vaccines used to prevent respiratory illness.
Friendship says the playing field needs leveling but using the loophole to do “cross-border shopping,” isn’t the answer. The industry should determine why it pays more for products in Canada than elsewhere and push for the changes needed to lower the costs.
He says his biggest concern is someone importing medication and being unsure of the product’s composition or how to properly administer it.
That’s Mitchell veterinarian Reg Reed’s concern, too.
The past president of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association says he has seen canisters of powders on farms that lack drug identification numbers and boast labels in other languages.
He suspects he has treated animals with a condition related to a product that hasn’t fallen under regulatory scrutiny here.
He says he has heard of farmers using rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), a synthetic hormone U.S. dairy farmers use to boost milk production in their herds.
The hormone can’t be sold in Canada.
Health Canada spokesman, Philippe Laroche, says farmers “cannot legally import rBST into Canada as it is a prescription drug.” A veterinarian “may import unapproved prescription drugs into Canada, however it would be for personal use only and could not be distributed or sold.”
Reed, Friendship and Stiles all say replacing the loophole is complex.
Stiles understands why producers want access to cheaper health products south of the border. He doesn’t endorse importation. In using the loophole, farmers rely less on their local vets and, in turn exacerbate a vet shortage in the province. He agrees something needs to be done to prevent importation of “questionably labelled” products from places such as Europe and China.
Yet producers should have access to approved drugs at the same cost as their American counterparts, he says. American meat products are consumed in Canada even if they were raised using drugs not approved for use here.
Even if the loophole is closed, there are always Internet sales, he adds.
“How do you police that?” BF