A Vet’s Perspective on Antibiotics and the Veterinary Feed Directive

jakegeis_fabpost1Jake Geis, DVM – Veterinarian, Tyndall Veterinary Clinic

This is a topic of discussion within the beef industry. The following article does not represent the opinion of the Beef Checkoff.

Farmers and ranchers are always responding to the ever-changing issues facing agriculture. One of our top priorities is addressing concerns about antibiotic resistance in both human and animal health. In response, the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) is being updated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), working with farmers, ranchers, feed manufacturers, and veterinarians.

What is the VFD and Why Is It Important?

Beginning January 1st, 2017, federal guidelines will require a written or electronic prescription-like script, a VFD, to authorize the use of antibiotics in cattle feed that are important to human medicine. As a component of this change, antibiotics used in human medicine will no longer be allowed for use for growth promotion in cattle feed.

How Do Veterinarians, Farmers and Ranchers Work Together?

For a cattle owner, obtaining a VFD will take veterinary involvement. If the farmer or rancher’s primary veterinarian diagnoses cattle that are in a disease outbreak, the veterinarian can write a VFD for the treatment, prevention or control of disease that allows the farmer or rancher to obtain feed-grade antibiotics. The VFD is taken to a licensed cattle feed business, like a prescription is taken to a pharmacy, where the order is filled.

For example, a farmer or rancher might have a group of calves that have come down with pneumonia. That farmer would contact me, a veterinarian, and we would assess the situation. Rather than give each calf an injectable antibiotic, which would add stress to calves that are already sick, I elect to treat them with an oral antibiotic that is mixed in with their feed. I would write the VFD and then send a copy to the licensed feed distributor.

As a Veterinarian, What Do You Want Concerned Consumers to Know?

As a veterinarian, I feel the VFD is important for two reasons. First, it allows for the continued therapeutic use of antibiotics in the feed. This is of major importance for animal welfare, as it allows for efficient treatment of diseases in a manner that is effective and provides the lowest stress for the animal.

Second, it fosters a closer relationship between the cattle owner and the veterinarian. Having a veterinarian’s input enhances animal health decisions in providing the best treatment for disease challenges. Most importantly, veterinarians can help farmers and ranchers with preventative medicine programs, which guard against disease outbreaks.

I alsojakegeis_fabpost2 want consumers to know in spite of the best preventative programs, occasionally cattle get sick. I’ve seen the frustration in farmers’ faces when a group of calves was struggling with disease despite their best efforts to prevent it. In some of those cases, feed-grade antibiotics made the difference in creating better animal welfare for the calves.

Where Can Consumers Learn More?

The VFD is only one of several strategies cattle farmers and ranchers are using. If you’d like to learn more, there are several resources that detail these other strategies. These include FactsAboutBeef.com, the North American Meat Institute, and blogs from farmers and ranchers, such as Kids Cows and Grass, Faith Family and Beef and my own blog, The Cow Docs.

Lastly, it is critical to remember that preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics is a cause for all of us. Even making sure to finish the full course of antibiotics prescribed to you or to your animals is essential to the fight against antibiotic resistance. With a dedicated effort, together we can successfully confront this challenge.

Antibiotic Stewardship is Not New to Cattle Ranchers

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about how antibiotics are used in raising livestock. The reality is that farmers and ranchers take antibiotic use in livestock very seriously and continuously evaluate the way they use antibiotics based on the best possible science.

In fact, for nearly 30 years, there have been quality assurance programs in place to help make sure farmers and ranchers are continuously improving the way they raise beef, including the way they use antibiotics, in order to protect human health, as well as animal health. This is often referred to as “antibiotic stewardship.”

Quality assurance throughout the beef community
A foundation for antibiotic stewardship in the beef community is the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. Started in the 1980’s, BQA is a nationally-coordinated, voluntary, program that provides guidelines for raising beef.  The BQA program is guided by an Advisory Board composed of veterinarians, animal scientists, meat scientists, state BQA coordinators, cattlemen and dairymen from across the United States.

 Antibiotic stewardship and BQA go hand in handAbxLabelReading_FAB_sm
A significant part of the BQA program involves antibiotic stewardship training about the appropriate use and administration of pharmaceutical products including following withdrawal times, the prevention of environmental contamination, the need for good record keeping, and the importance of a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship. In fact, one of the guidelines put forth in the BQA program, A Beef Producer’s Guide for the Judicious Use of Antimicrobials in Cattle highlights 14 use guidelines for antibiotics, including:

  • Avoid using antibiotics that are important in human medicine
  • Use a narrow spectrum of antimicrobials whenever possible
  • Treat the fewest number of animals possible
  • Antibiotics used should be limited to treat, prevent or control disease

Antibiotics are just one tool
The BQA program also teaches that antibiotics are just one tool to ensure healthy animals and there are many others, including good management practices, vaccines, cattlenutrition programs, veterinary care, proper housing and low-stress handling that are critical components to ensuring healthy animals as well. If cattle become ill, it is critical to identify the right illness for proper treatment and producers may consult a veterinarian for assistance in diagnosis of the illness. If an antibiotic is needed to treat the illness, the right antibiotic is administered for the right amount of time by following the FDA-approved label instructions, Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines and veterinary guidance.

Continuously improving
Today, Beef Quality Assurance influences management practices of more than 80-90 percent of U.S. cattle and farmers and ranchers work hard every day to continue to increase the number of producers who are BQA certified. The beef community continues to invest in research to better understand how to effectively and appropriately use antibiotics to best protect animal and public health. For example, the beef community has organized a research advisory group composed of a wide range of university researchers within the agricultural community to direct the planning for future antibiotic use and antimicrobial resistance research activities.

Antibiotic Use in Cattle 101

Myth: Big beef uses antibiotics without regard for animal welfare or human health.

Facts: Antibiotics are just one tool beef farmers and ranchers use to keep cattle healthy by treating and preventing the spread of illness. Cattle can pick up illnesses, just like humans, whether they’re out on pasture or in a feedlot with other animals. Cattlemen work closely with veterinarians to develop a comprehensive health program, which may include nutritious diet, proper housing, hygiene, vaccinations and antibiotics.

Antibiotics CattleHere are the basics on antibiotic use in cattle:

How are they used?

  • When an animal gets sick, farmers, ranchers and veterinarians carefully evaluate when to administer antibiotics and use specific dosages and treatment protocols to treat the animal.
  • Cattle farmers and ranchers believe not treating cattle that become sick is inhumane as part of their ongoing commitment to animal health and welfare. When administering antibiotics, they follow precise label directions, meaning they adhere to usage guidelines to protect both animals and humans that have been rigorously tested and approved by the United States Food & Drug Administration. Just like in human medicine, there are many protocols developed by veterinarians and scientists that they have to follow diligently.
  • Antibiotics are used in animal medicine to prevent disease, which is important to animal and human safety.
  • Antibiotic use to prevent disease differs from growth promotion purposes in three ways: dose, duration and level of veterinary oversight.
  • Some farmers and ranchers choose to use ionophores – a special class of antibiotics not used in human medicine – to promote lean muscle growth in animals, which results in leaner beef choices.

Who ensures antibiotics are not overused?

  • There is no reason to overuse antibiotics, but reasons why they might be used at specific times and in targeted ways. For one, it’s the law not to overuse them, but antibiotics also are expensive for the small businessmen and women who raise cattle for beef.

How are antibiotics given to cattle?

  • Depending on the circumstance, antibiotics may be given to cattle as individual injections or added to feed or water to treat a larger group who has been exposed to the same illness.

Are antibiotics safe?

  • All antibiotics must go through rigorous government scrutiny before being approved for use in livestock.
  • Unlike human medicine, animal medicine goes through three layers of approval, is the medicine safe for the animal, the environment and the humans who will consume the meat. All three areas must be evaluated before approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
  • Even after they’re approved, antibiotics are continuously monitored and must be re-evaluated annually. They only stay on the market if they continue to be proven safe.

What’s being done to improve antibiotic use?

  • Cattlemen and the entire livestock community are working together to continuously improve the way antibiotics are used in animals, because they care about how their practices impact antibiotic safety and efficacy.
  • The beef community is also working to avoid using antibiotics that are important to both human and animal medicine, as identified by the World Health Organization. For example, Food & Drug Administration Guidance 209 and 213 will eliminate growth promotion uses of medically important antibiotics and extend veterinary oversight.

For consumers who want beef raised without antibiotics, the beef community has listened and provides choices to meet those needs.

Learn more about judicious use of antibiotics and what farmers and ranchers do to keep animals and humans safe.

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