As alarm bells continue ringing about antibiotic resistance, agriculture is often identified as the leading culprit. Despite many contributing factors, a sweeping new FDA rule governing the use of certain antibiotics in livestock is set to take effect January 1. The Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), which is specifically directed at antibiotics administered in animal feed, will change the way many dairy, beef, swine and poultry producers have operated for decades.
Increased veterinary oversight is at the heart of the VFD. Today, if a beef or swine producer wants to use a feed medicated with antibiotics, he or she can simply order from a feed supplier. It’s an over-the-counter transaction. Going forward, producers will be required to establish and show proof of a veterinary-client relationship. In some ways, this requirement simply brings the use of feed-applied antibiotics in livestock to par with rules governing how people and pets can obtain antibiotics by essentially requiring a prescription. On the surface, this seems simple enough. But for the many producers operating in comparatively remote and hard-to-reach locations, it won’t be nearly as easy as it sounds.
Challenging, but not without warrant
All parties responsible for VFD compliance—producers, veterinarians and feed suppliers—will carry the burden of new administrative processes that will be challenging to implement, at least initially. But the effort surrounding antibiotic stewardship is not without warrant. Until new classes of broad-spectrum antibiotics are discovered, safeguarding the efficacy of those currently used in both human and animal medicine is critically important.
In September, the United Nations described antibiotic resistance as “the greatest and most urgent global risk.” The Centers for Disease Control agrees, classifying drug resistance among the biggest threats to human health. The World Health Organization and other public health institutions have come to those same conclusions. Medical professionals have described growing resistance to antibiotics as a “ticking time bomb” and “as big a risk as terrorism.”
To be clear, the livestock production system as a whole is only part of the antibiotic resistance puzzle. Overprescription and misuse of antibiotics in human medicine is unquestionably a major factor contributing to the development of resistance. But it’s not the only one. Widespread use of antibiotics to enhance feed efficiency or as growth promotants, rather than medicines to resolve health challenges, may have contributed. And while that practice has dramatically declined, the intent of the landmark VFD rule is to further tighten the discipline when feeding antibiotics to production animals.
Implementing the VFD will be challenging for producers and veterinarians. New operational processes always are. But there is a potential upside for the livestock industry, too. First, proof of compliance with the VFD provides producers with documentation they are adhering to federally established guidelines that represent judicious use of antibiotics. It’s hard for critics to argue with that. Compliance with the VFD inherently helps protect a producer’s license to operate.
Second, the VFD puts the livestock industry on the same playing field as companion animal and human medicine when it comes to how antibiotics are dispensed. From a reputational and sustainability perspective, this bodes well for the protein industry. And veterinarians may have new opportunities to engage more closely with those producers who previously took a “DIY” approach to herd health.
Meanwhile, some companies producing animals for food have embraced consumer sentiment and are responding with products derived from animals using fewer or even no antibiotics. For example, Perdue Farms recently announced it has eliminated not only human- but also animal-grade antibiotics across its operations, which required 14 years of research, analysis and adjustments in animal care to do so responsibly. The landscape is changing rapidly and will continue to do so.
Concurrently, a bigger solution to combating antibiotic resistance remains the responsibility of physicians who routinely overprescribe and consumers who overuse these critical tools for human and animal health.
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