WASHINGTON, June 17, 2015 – The feds have rolled out the final leg of their broad campaign to choke off farm use of antibiotics important for human health, and it spells varied, mostly moderate, impact for farms, veterinarians and feed merchants.

The Food and Drug Administration's Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) final rule is aimed at sharply limiting most uses of such drugs in the feed and water of farm animals to help ensure that humans don’t develop resistance to the drugs. The regulations join the agency's other broad new standardss that will strictly limit antibiotics administered in other ways to animals. For decades, the use of medically important antibiotics in animals has been declining overall in the face of tightening standards, voluntary cutbacks by livestock operators plus recent grocery companies' and restaurant chains' demands on the producers of livestock products.

The VFD updates the first animal feed-related standards, approved in 2000, and is aimed especially at operations still using antibiotics to speed weight gain or growth in poultry and swine. Basically, it makes use of medically important antimicrobials for weight gain illegal, plus requires that livestock owners get a veterinarian's approval for other uses of those drugs. And it gives veterinarians new guidelines for prescribing such drugs in feed for therapeutic purposes, but lets vets make the call and respects the way veterinary rules in each state will carry out the guidelines.

The tighter standards will add costs particularly for some small operations that don't have a veterinarian retained to prescribe drugs no longer available over the counter, and it appears they will affect the swine sector more than others.

Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council, says two of the leading antibiotics fed to hogs, bacitracin and carbadox, to promote weight gain aren't on the medically important list. However, most of the antibiotics used to fight swine diseases are used in human medicine. In fact, she says, “there are almost no disease prevention or treatments available in pigs through use of non-medically important antibiotics.”

Still, the National Pork Board, which administers the pork checkoff, recently updated its policy position, stating that it "embraces responsible antibiotic use in pork production" and pledges to "emphasize these values in its revised Pork Quality Assurance Plus producer certification and training programs" in the year ahead.

Meanwhile, Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, said “There really aren’t major implications in this new [VFD] policy for dairy producers, as our farmers don’t provide medically important drugs in the food and water of their herds except in a few narrow instances such as medicated milk replacer to treat bacterial scours in young calves.”

And, Galen says, NMPF likes how the FDA standards “stress the importance of farmers and ranchers establishing a veterinarian-client-patient relationship,” which he says is what NMPF itself does in its national dairy cow health improvement program.

But some in the beef industry wonder if approaching such a critical topic in such a broad manner is the best thing for the food supply. On average, a steer raised for meat is harvested at 18 months, a much longer life span than that of a chicken (about eight weeks) or hogs (usually five or six months).The National Chicken Council, representing vertically integrated chicken-meat producers who all retain their own vets, takes similar views. Though poultry farms use a lot of antibiotics, NCC points out that most antibiotics used on commercial chicken farms are never used in human medicine. The majority “are in a class called ionophores, which are used in animals only.” Besides, it notes: “All of our member companies are already eliminating their use for growth promotion and most are moving far in advance of regulatory deadlines.”

Mike Apley, a professor in Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the chair of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s antimicrobial resistance policy advisory group, explained the group’s objection.

“When we start actively impeding the ability in longer-lived production animals to prevent and control disease based off blanket statements or approaches, that’s when we’re really going to start running into issues,” Apley told reporters in a recent briefing at NCBA’s Washington office.  Apley said he has no problem with the review of how antibiotics are used both in food animal production and human medicine, but he said that regulators should be judicious. The last thing that should be done, he said, is to implement changes “in the name of human health that actually have little or no benefit on human health – or may be detrimental – and actually impede my ability to care for the animals.”

FDA plans to start phasing in the rules at the end of 2016, with the training of veterinarians, feed mill operators and livestock owners on the new standards. It'll then monitor the sales of the targeted drugs by collecting and sorting out the sales of antibiotics to feed mill operators, farmers and other buyers in all livestock sectors. In May it proposed new reporting requirements for drug makers and distributors to facilitate such monitoring possible. Also, USDA launched its own efforts last year to monitor farm use of medically important antibiotic, conduct research for alternatives, etc. Note, too, that FDA will require farmers, veterinarians and feed merchants to retain records of all veterinary feed directives for two years.


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