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Episode S2E6
How are antibiotics used in animal agriculture and should we be concerned?

How are antibiotics used in animal agriculture and should we be concerned? With Lauren Mackenzie from Coles.
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Tuesday, 21 July 2020
Brian Daly interviews Lauren Mackenzie, Responsible Sourcing Manager for Agriculture at Coles.


Theme music plays.

Opening quote: A lot of people think that when they see an antibiotic free claim on a product like chicken, that it means all of the other chicken on the shelf without that claim must have antibiotics in the meat. But as I pointed out, thanks to with holding periods that isn't the case.

Theme music plays.

Brian: Hello and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast. My name is Brian Daly and today I'm talking with Lauren Mackenzie, the responsible sourcing manager for agriculture at Cole's group. Welcome to the podcast Lauren.

Lauren: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian: Lauren, we've asked you on specifically to talk about the use of antibiotics in Australian livestock production and to dispel some of the misconceptions around their role in farming that consumers still hold on to today but firstly, be great to know a little bit about your background and how you came to be working in this field.

Lauren: Yeah, so I suppose I'll start from the start. I grew up in central Victoria on our property with horses and cattle, and I think that it's learning from both of these animals that really set me up with a strong understanding of animal production and behaviour that I use now in my role. When I was growing up the Monty Roberts and Pat Pirelli, schools of natural horsemanship were really big. So, I learned a lot about horse behaviour and subsequently prey animal behaviour from this.

Brian: Can I ask what's prey animal behaviour?

Lauren: Prey animal behaviour in a very high level sense is the set of behaviours that are exhibited by animals that are typically preyed upon in the wild so your horses, your deer, your cattle, think about anything that a lion or a tiger or a wolf, those typical kind of predators, apex animals in the food chain, the animals that they would source for their food is a prey animal. So those animals, all have similar styles of behaviour, so it's the fight or flight, and they're typically flight animals, so they will run away when they're scared or when they're surprised. And I think with horses, it's really one of the kind of lightbulb moments, was we ride on our horses back, which is typically where they might get attacked from. So, you think a lion or a tiger might jump on it on zebras back. And that's pretty much game over for the zebra at that point. So, it's about being aware of those behaviours when you're working with those animals. That's really interesting.

Brian: Yeah, as you say, it's something that will help you understand what you're doing or how the animals feeling when you're doing a certain thing or treating it in a certain way.

Lauren: Yeah, exactly. And I think that learning this from an early age meant that I had those fundamentals of animal behaviour that feeds really nicely into animal welfare, which is one of the key parts of my role here at Cole's is looking after animal welfare. And another thing that owning horses and cattle exposed me to was veterinary medicine. So as a kid, I did all the worming, drenching and vaccinations for my animals, which meant I was exposed to the concept of a withholding period really early on, which is something I'll talk about later.

Brian: And so you grew up with cattle. I guess that gave you an insight into production as well.

Lauren: Yes. So, my interest in animal production started when I began buying my own weaner cattle to fatten when I was about 12, and selling them to the local abattoir for quite a sizable profit. I actually made quite a lot of money as a teenager by fattening cattle until the millennium drought kicked in and then I had to hand feed my cattle twice a day off round bales that were costing up to $1,000 a bale so that put that to a quick finish.

Brian: So you felt that personally the impact of the environment and the climactic conditions on production?

Lauren: Yeah, hugely like you know, you could buy a round bale for significantly lower cost prior to the millennium drought kicking in and then yes thousand dollars was the top, but at that time, so yeah after I sent that lot of cattle off, I didn't restock which that was okay. I mean I was moving off to the cities to study ag science at Melbourne Uni to continue that passion. Anyway, whilst I was doing my undergraduate degree, I worked a number of part time jobs in agricultural or food companies, as well as some time at a regional MPs office. So, I got exposed to the business side of agriculture, as well as the rural community sides of the MP office job there. After my undergraduate degree, I did the classic Australian rite of passage and went backpacking for a year around South America. And then I came back to do a Master's of Strategic Procurement, which was because I decided that I wanted to buy agricultural products as a career path

Brian: And how did you get into that retail sector?

Lauren: My entry you into the retail world was by luck. Well, by chance, had actually just come back from another stint of traveling and was planning on finishing my master's full time, but took a seven week contract with Cole's to earn some money and keep me busy until uni started and four different roles and seven years later, I am still here.

Brian: It's often the way isn't it, that life leads you on this path. And then oh, okay, I'll take this opportunity, and I'll stick with it.

Lauren: Exactly. And I've grown through Coles professionally so much and I'm so grateful for all of the opportunities that I've been given here, where I got to fulfill that dream of buying food from farmers where I actually spent a couple of years buying fresh produce in that part of the Cole's business which was really amazing. I was responsible for the national pricing and promotional schedules for tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicum. And I worked with farmers through droughts, forest fires, floods and even a cyclone, which was really tough at the time, but I, I loved building those relationships with them. And there's still some farmers that I speak to even though I've moved on in my role. And then just under three years ago, I moved into my current role of responsible sourcing manager for agriculture, which is pretty much my dream job.

Brian: Can you tell us a bit more about that responsible sourcing program at Cole's and how it actually aims to improve the welfare of farm animals in Australia?

Lauren: Well, the responsible sourcing program at Cole's covers a number of things such as sustainable seafood and commodities, nutrition and well-being as well as animal welfare, which is what I look after. The animal welfare policy at Coles is based around the five freedoms which were mentioned a few times in season one and Coles actually has one of the strongest company track records for advancement of animal welfare in Australia.

Brian: And we should say Coles has done quite a bit of work with the RSPCA on the Approved Farming Scheme over the years as well.

Lauren: Yeah, back in 2014. We partnered with the chicken producer Hazeldene’s to be the first to launch RSPCA Approved chicken and today nearly 80% of chickens in Australia are raised under the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme, which is pretty impressive. We went on to launch our RSPCA Approved turkey in 2014, and free range pork in 2015. And we currently have the largest range of RSPCA Approved products of any national supermarket. So, our commitment to animal welfare is something we're really proud of, and it's integral to our core purpose of sustainably feeding all Australians.

Brian: And how does the use of antibiotics fit into this? Because there's a perception amongst some consumers that when antibiotics are used in the livestock industry, we may be actually eating antibiotic filled produce. Would you be able to clarify this, tell us the different ways antibiotics may be used and also the idea of withholding periods and I guess, firstly, why are antibiotics used?

Lauren: So it's probably good to start with a definition of antibiotics for the uninitiated. Antibiotics are drugs that are used to treat and control infections caused by bacteria. It's important to recognize that antibiotics do not treat or control infections caused by viruses, fungi or parasites. So just like people, sometimes animals get sick from bacterial infections, and antibiotics are a tool that we can use to treat those illnesses.

Brian: And how exactly they used in Australian livestock systems?

Lauren: So normally what would happen is the animal will show symptoms of a disease or clinical signs, and that will trigger a prescription from a registered vet for an antibiotic that will address that bacterial infection. And it's up to the vet to prescribe the right product for that particular illness. The species of animal and the production systems they live in will often dictate how the vet proceeds to treatment. For example, broiler chickens would normally be treated by antibiotics being added to the water or feed, with larger animals like cattle, the illnesses and treatments are more individual. So normally, the cattle would be injected with it and then antibiotic and once the antibody is administered, it'll kill the bacteria or play and then the animal will recover. What's important to note here is that any use of an antibiotic must be performed under the supervision of a vet and animals that are treated are then subjected to a withholding period. Now that withholding period is the minimum period which must elapse between the last administration of a medicine including antibiotics and the use of that animal for food, whether that be slaughter for meats or the collection of milk or eggs. Observation of the withholding period will mean that there is no impactful residues in the food we consume, even if the animal needed treatment at some point in their life.

Brian: So, the withholding period is designed to ensure the antibiotics have dispersed much like withholding periods on crops to ensure there's no pesticide residue?

Lauren: Yeah, exactly. So withholding periods applied to veterinary minutes. Such as antibiotics as well as other agricultural chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, etc. The government body the Australian pesticides and veterinary medicines body, is the body that looks after product registration and withholding periods.

Brian: Right. So, there's very clear oversight on this?

Lauren: Yeah, very clear. So, the use of antibiotics in treating disease in poultry and livestock would be an essential part of looking after the health of the animals as you were saying, certainly, if we if we didn't treat the animals when they're sick, then they would suffer and likely die of preventable death.

Brian: Yeah, much the same as with human disease, I guess. And to that point, the antibiotics used to treat animals are the same antibiotics that are used to treat humans?

Lauren: So yes or no. A good portion of the antibiotics used in agriculture here in Australia are not used in humans. This has a positive implication for antibiotic resistance in humans in Australia as it means that a lot of the antibiotics that are important for human health are reserved for humans. Certainly in Australia, this is different to other countries where there are more of those antibiotics critical for human health. They can also be used in agriculture.

Brian: So how does that antibiotic resistance grow? And how does this impact on the classification of antibiotics in Australia?

Lauren: So antibiotic resistance is a problem because bacteria can become resistant to the antibiotics that are intended to kill them. The more you use the product, the more likely you are to be left with a really strong bacteria and then you need to use a stronger antibiotic to kill that infection. In Australia we have a range of bacteria resistance that are unique to our country. And the Australian Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on antimicrobial resistance or ASTAG has created a hierarchy of antibiotic importance that reflects the resistances found here. This ASTAG lists rates antibiotics to see the high medium or low importance to human health or of no human use. That is there a group of antibiotics that are not used in humane health at all right. What's important to note here is that there aren't many antibiotics in that high categories that are used in agriculture here in Australia.

Brian: Yeah, great. Okay, so there seems to be a differentiation there that will be a good thing for human health as well as animal health, keeping them quite separate.

Lauren: Yeah. And that's a testament to our long history of controlled use and regulation of antibiotics here in Australia. And for those few products that are ranked high in the Australian agricultural industry, it is working hard to avoid using them.

Brian: And how do we avoid using antibiotics in animals?

Lauren: So, there's a raft of things producers can do to prevent the need for antibiotics. The main thing is to have a really healthy animal to start with. This can be achieved by having good hygiene on the farm with strict biosecurity rules in place. vaccination programs are really important to prevent common diseases as well as a well-rounded diet also helps. Our Coles free range chicken here on the East Coast is raised without the need for any antibiotics as the birds have undergone rigorous vaccination programs and are fed a diet that includes prebiotics, probiotics, and essential oils that promote health so that they don't get sick and need those antibiotics.

Brian: Yeah, so that's it seems like there's, as you say, as a raft of things that can be done to avoid in the first place. But obviously, if the animals do come down with some sort of illness that we need to treat them with antibiotics to ensure their health and as you say, to ensure they don't think any old or die, and you have got antibiotic free labelling on Cole's products, but you were saying earlier that there's some confusion about what that actually means.

Lauren: A lot of people think that when they see an antibiotic free claim on a product like chicken, that it means all of the other chicken on the shelf without that claim must have antibiotics in the meat. But as I pointed out, thanks to withholding periods, that isn't the case. When consumers see an antibiotic free label on a Coles brand product. It means that animal did not need to be treated with antibiotics at any point throughout its Life. Now, this doesn't mean that we have created a welfare issue. We seek animals just for the sake of an antibiotic free claim. We actually require farmers to have strict treatment protocols in place in the event of illness. And if the animal needs it, then they treated and that production is diverted into our conventional product streams that don't have an antibiotic claim.

Brian: So it shouldn't be a concern to consumers. It's just a treatment option to keep the animals healthy.

Lauren: Yeah, exactly. And it's a tool that you want to use after you've tried other things like preventative actions such as biosecurity and good health, and good hygiene.

Brian: And just back on the point of labelling, some consumers are still concerned about the use of hormones as growth promoters as well, now globally, as I understand these are used in chicken production, but in Australia, that's not the case.

Lauren: Yeah, that's correct in chickens. So, in chickens, hormones haven't been allowed to be used since the 60s, it's actually a bit crazy that people still think their used. The increased growth rate and the size of chickens over the past few decades is purely down to selective breeding and improved nutrition.

Brian: So that's the case with chicken in Australia. There's no hormones used. But what about in the case of beef? Because I understand Coles has a no added hormone beef product.

Lauren: Yeah, yeah, we do. Since 2011, cause has actually been the only national supermarket to sell its own brand fresh beef with no added hormones. There's a large portion of the Australian cattle herd that gets an implant or pellet put in their ear which contains hormones that boost their feed conversion rates and overall finishing weight. Our customers told us that they wanted more naturally grown beef. So, we made this change back in 2011.

Brian: And that's obviously still being economically viable. I mean, I imagine that's why growth hormones are given in the first place.

Lauren: We've actually seen improved finishing weights rage with in our beef supply network since first introducing HGP free beef, and that's down to better breeding and better nutrition. So, it's a lot like hormones not being used in chicken production where there's been no hormones in Coles own brand fresh beef since 2011. But we've seen those improvements in the finishing weights.

Brian: And I suppose that's a testament to the area you look after which is responsible sourcing, it seems to be a real focus on looking across the board at how animal welfare can be improved, because that's what consumers are demanding these days. Is that the case?

Lauren: Yeah, so customers really care how the animals are traded and the RSPCA is a clear beacon in that, realm in that by knowing that the animal was raised under the RSPCA approved farming scheme. They know that animal had a good life and was cared for. And that's why Cole's really gets behind the RSPCA approved farming scheme because we see it as a really simple way of communicating to our customer that we care about animal welfare, and that the animals that raised within our network of suppliers were raised to high standards.

Brian: And it's really good to see that uptake in demand amongst consumers for higher welfare product. But it sounds like there's still a little bit of a job to do on educating people around the use of antibiotics in Australian livestock production, and also how we fare in comparison to the rest of the world.

Lauren: Yeah, that's one of the biggest challenges of the ag industry is that there is all this concern about, on overuse, but actually we've got really strict controls compared to other countries, because Australia's got a really good story around regulation. So, Australia has been controlling via prescription the use of antibiotics in both humans and animals for several decades. And this is not the same internationally. Were in the US up until 2017. You could go to a farm shop and buy antibiotics for your farm for your farm animals without a prescription or without guidance from of it. So, it means that someone that doesn't have the education in the impact of antibiotics could go out and treat how they thought was appropriate. And these has large implications for resistance because you might be treating a viral infection with antibiotics, which that just increases your likelihood of resistance for that particular antibiotic product. So the US had quite loose restrictions on this up until 2017. Whereas Australia, we've had strict regulation on that since the 70s. And 60s, which is why we have really low rates of resistance here in Australia compared to other countries internationally, with and that's a really good news story, for the level of control, but also the challenge of resistance or antibody resistance in Australia for both humans and animals.

Brian: Yeah, that is a really good point. And I guess another supporting argument for buying Australian.

Lauren: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, 96% of our fresh products. So fresh produce and meat is Australian grown.

Brian: Which is a great thing. And so, supporting the farmers, you're supporting the whole industry here as well.

Lauren: Yeah, exactly. And we we've been working with some of our farmers for decades, they we have long running partnerships with farmers. And this sticks around through times of drought where they might not have any animals to sell because they've de stocked their property, but we're ready to recommence those relationships once it's rained, and they're back in production. And we've seen this with the drought in New South Wales and Queensland over the past year or so where a lot of farms have de stock, but now that it's rained, they're looking to come back into production and hopefully we'll have stock set for sale again in future.

Brian: Well, thanks, Lauren. It's been great to get some clarity around the use of antibiotics in Australian livestock production. And hopefully we've been able to dispel a couple of myths for listeners. It's always great to see a major retailer like Cole's is looking out for the welfare of farm animals and stocking RSPCA approved product as you say, because, as a major retailer, your decisions can have a major impact on the quality of life of so many farm animals. So thanks again.

Lauren: Thank you.

Brian: We've been talking today with Lauren Mackenzie, the responsible sourcing manager for agriculture at Cole's group. So, thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on the RSPCA approved farming scheme, visit our rspcaapproved.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the RSPCA Australia website, rspca.org.au or all the usual podcast suspects. I’m Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time. The RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.

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