Every year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publishes a report on the sales of antibiotics for use in food animals. It’s an interesting “big picture” view of what livestock producers use to keep their animals healthy and productive.

This latest report, for 2017, was especially interesting. That’s because on January 1, 2017, new regulations went into effect governing how livestock producers could obtain – and use – certain antibiotics for their animals.

One of the major changes was that “medically important” classes of antibiotics (those commonly used in people) could no longer be used simply for growth promotion in animals. The thought behind this was to reduce the potential development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in people.

With that restriction, one would expect antibiotic usage to go down, right? That’s correct. The sales of medically important antibiotics for livestock use in 2017 were lower than 2016 sales by a whopping 33 percent.

It’s hard to tell how much of that reduction was due to the elimination of growth-promoting antibiotics. Most of those products had dual labels – for growth promotion as well as disease treatment. At the start of 2017, those labels changed to disease indications only.

I feel that a good portion of the reduction in antibiotic sales was also due to more judicious use on the part of the producer. Another major change that occurred on January 1, 2017, was that producers could no longer buy medically important feed-grade antibiotics in an over-the-counter manner. For those drugs, producers now are required to visit with their veterinarian about the use of and need for those drugs in their animals, and obtain a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) form from the vet before the medication can be dispensed.

This was largely viewed as a big pain in the neck by livestock producers, but I think the process has mostly been beneficial. It has forced livestock producers to have conversations with their veterinarians about disease treatment – and prevention. Some of those conversations resulted in more strategic, targeted use of feed grade antibiotics rather than a shotgun approach. Not all disease issues benefit from antibiotics: veterinary input can help producers recognize when antibiotics are a waste of money instead of essential.

The report also brought out the fact that tetracyclines are the big dogs in the livestock antibiotic world. On a pound-for-pound basis, almost two-thirds of the medically-important antibiotics used in food animals are tetracyclines. This includes the commonly-encountered chlortetracycline (CTC) and oxytetracycline (OTC), which are found in feed-grade (how most of it’s used), water, and injectable forms for livestock. In cattle alone in 2017, use of tetracyclines dropped 42 percent compared to 2016.

Perhaps your operation reflected this decrease in the use of these medications in 2017. But perhaps not. As any livestock producer knows, animal health varies from year to year. Some years, our animals need antibiotics more often than in other years. Maybe 2017 was a good year for your animals, maybe not. Maybe you decided that getting a VFD was too much of a hassle and you didn’t use the drugs as a result. Or maybe you worked with your vet on a preventive medicine plan that meant you didn’t need to treat as many animals this year.

The decrease in the sale of medically important antibiotics over the past year is a good sign. In the absence of evidence that animal health or well-being took a hit, it tells me that many of our previous uses were likely unnecessary.

It will be interesting to see future years’ reports. Will the drop in feed-grade usages of tetracyclines continue? Will the decline in tetracycline use push producers to have to use more potent injectable medications of different antibiotic classes to treat illnesses when feed-grade prevention efforts fail?

Regardless, it will always be a good idea to revisit and refine your operation’s antibiotic approach on an ongoing basis. New knowledge in preventive medicine and improving nutrition and vaccine products will continue to push us towards fewer and fewer pounds of antibiotics going into our food animals

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.

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