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The New Rules of Feed Antibiotics

The FDA has put in place new regulations that require a veterinary prescription.

After decades of discussions, proposals, and threats, it’s finally happened: There are new rules for including antibiotics in animal feeds.

As of January 1, 2017, a new regulation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that a prescription from your veterinarian – a veterinary feed directive (VFD) – be in place for all medically important antibiotics administered in feed and water.

Tom Peters, a consulting nutritionist to beef producers for Superior Attitude Livestock Technologies in Oregon, Illinois, answers seven questions about the new law.

1. What are the driving forces behind these changes?

Peters: The FDA and other groups have long been concerned about medically important shared-use antibiotics – those used in both humans and animals. The groups suspect that the possible overuse, including in animal feeds, might lead to E. coli bacteria that become resistant to the drugs.

Frankly, there’s little data to support that theory, in my opinion. In fact, a just-released study from the Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska refutes the connection of resistant bacteria to feeding antibiotics.

In the past, some feed-grade antibiotics were sort of over the counter, and the label claim was for things like growth promotion and feed efficiency improvement. Those claims are going away, and now it will require a VFD with a specific disease diagnosis.

2. Which specific antibiotics are involved?

Peters: For the beef industry, it’s mostly the tetracycline antibiotics and tylosin. Tylosin has been fed continuously in many feedlots for growth promotion, and the tetracyclines have been used more for stress periods when cattle face a health challenge. You’ll still have the ability to use them, but it will require a VFD.

3. Is there something good that can come from this for the beef industry?

Peters: Consumers are telling us they want less antibiotic use in animals that become food products. It doesn’t make any difference if there is science behind it or not. If it’s what they want, we’ll provide it. We’ll get more judicious use of antibiotics, and that’s good. Maybe some producers have overused antibiotics, and that will end.

Now, we need to follow the new rule to the letter. We can have no violations. None! If we violate the rule, it will surely bring even more regulation.

4. What segments of the cattle industry will feel this the most?

Peters: It might be primarily feedlots, but there are also a large number of cow/calf producers who have fed antibiotics in feed during known stress periods, such as a storm or relocation. Ranchers have known that some feed-grade antibiotics are effective against foot rot or pink eye, although those were unapproved, off-label uses anyway.

A lot of small- or medium-size ranchers have had a history of doing most of their own health programs and treatments. They’ve been able to go to their feed supplier and get a feed with antibiotics in it. Now, you can’t do that anymore without your veterinarian being involved.

If you haven’t already done it, you need to sit down and talk about this and make sure your veterinarian is willing to write a VFD. Some veterinarians may take different approaches.

5. What about calf creep feeds?

Peters: I would say at least 30% of them have had an antibiotic in them during some period of the calves’ growth, and I think that will just go away. Your veterinarian has to have indication that you have an ongoing respiratory (Pasturella) disease problem. The antibiotic can’t be there just because you think it helps them gain faster or reduces foot and eye problems.

6. Can I still use injectable antibiotics the same way as before?

Peters: Yes. Most injectable products already require a veterinary prescription, so that doesn’t change. It is one area that will likely cost the industry more money. A low level of antibiotic in the feed for a few days might cost $1 a head; an injectable form might be $25.

Some people have wondered about putting the antibiotic in the water to get around a VFD. You can’t. It also takes a VFD.

7. How about my vaccination program, is there any impact there?

Peters: No changes there. You could say that’s another good thing about the new rule: We can get better at reducing disease risks.

I’ve been to Ireland, and that country made it a law that animals had to be vaccinated for bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) or they could not be sold anywhere. They eliminated BVD. We need to go in that direction, and it can start with a good vaccination program.

Questions from Producers

NCBA recently held a webinar on the new rules of antibiotics, featuring advice from Mike Murphy of FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine and Tom Portillo, manager of animal health for Friona Industries, a Texas cattle feedlot.

Here are some of the questions posed by ranchers and their answers.

Q: Can veterinary feed directives (VFDs) be transferred electronically?

Q: What about fly control products that are included in the feed?
If there is no antibiotic included, that’s not an issue and no VFD is required.

Q: What if I have leftover feed product (from before the VFD went into effect) with an antibiotic in it?
This could also be an issue if you buy more VFD feed than you end up needing. If you can store it for a while, you could use it the next time you have a VFD feed order. It’s best to order just what you need so you don’t have this issue.

Q: How long do I have to keep the VFD paperwork and prescription forms?
The federal rule is two years, and they can be kept electronically. Some states may require longer.

Q: What are the consequences of noncompliance?
We’re working through this with FDA. They talk about education before enforcement. Of course, there could be mistakes, but there can’t be too many.

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