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.

Drug Residues in Meat?

Myth: Ranchers aren’t doing anything about drug residues in beef.

Fact: Farmers and ranchers are committed to raising safe, wholesome beef.  In addition, the United States has a complex residue control system, with rigorous processes for approval, sampling, testing, and enforcement activities. The National Residue Program is designed to prevent the occurrence of violative levels of chemical residues in meat and poultry products. Three principal agencies are involved in the control of residues in meat and poultry products:

    1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
    2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
    3. U.S. Department of Environmental Protection (EPA)

Hamburger patties in a beef processing plant. Source: Grist

What is a residue?

A residue refers to the presence of veterinary drugs or pesticides in meat. These residues are usually measured in parts per million or parts per billion.  The overwhelming majority of meat products contain no residues or residues within the government prescribed tolerance levels. Veterinary drug tolerances are established by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.  EPA establishes tolerances for registered pesticides under the Food Quality Protection Act.

How are veterinary drug (including antibiotics) residues controlled?

  • The FDA approves veterinary drugs and the specific dosage rates to treat specific diseases or conditions, and farmers, ranchers and veterinarians are required by law to follow the FDA-approved label to administer the drug appropriately and correctly.
  • Even after they are approved, veterinary drugs are continuously monitored and must be re-evaluated annually. They only remain on the market if they continue to be proven safe for the animal, human consumption and the environment.
  • The FDA also sets withdrawal times for all veterinary drugs, including antibiotics. Withdrawal time is the amount of time required for the drug to be fully processed by the animal’s body; the withdrawal time depends on the drug but typically ranges from zero to 60 days.
  • Beef farmers and ranchers, along with veterinarians, are committed to following guidelines to ensure no meat with antibiotic residue above the FDA tolerance level enters our food supply.
  • The FSIS routinely tests meat to ensure its safety according to standards set by the FDA. At the plant, USDA inspectors take samples to confirm no residue violations are present.

What is the Repeat Residue Violators list?

  • The Repeat Residue Violators list is a publicly available list of producers who have had more than one drug or pesticide residue violation. This list is used by USDA inspectors to put further scrutiny on cattle from those producers and by cattle buyers to know their supplier has previously had a residue violation.

How does the Residue Violators list work?

  • If a cattle producer violates the prescribed residue levels more than once they are put on the Repeat Residue Violators list.
  • This list is updated weekly by FSIS – the entity that has inspectors at every federally-inspected beef processing plant throughout the country. A total of 27 states have state-inspected beef processing plants, meat from these plants can only be sold within the state. All meat products that cross state borders must by inspected by FSIS. State meat and poultry inspection programs participate in the National Residue Program.
  • A producer stays on the Residue Violators List for one year. The list you can find online is every producer who has had a residue violation over the past 365 days, not just the past week.

To learn more about antibiotic residues, watch this video of experts developed by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

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