What is the FDA planning to do with livestock antibiotics?

Farm Forum

The FDA recently came out with plans to change the way feed-grade antibiotics are used in livestock. This wasn’t a big surprise to most veterinary and livestock organizations, which have seen this coming for a couple years. But what does this mean for the individual livestock producer?

The most apparent change will be that some of the antibiotics currently available to livestock producers will no longer be able to be used for growth promotion and feed efficiency. The FDA is asking companies to voluntarily take these uses off these products’ labels, and it appears that most companies are going to go along with the request, making gradual changes over the next three years.

But not all growth-promoting feed grade products are affected by this. Only antibiotics that are on FDA’s list of drugs “medically important” for human use are going to change. This includes drugs like tetracycline and tylosin. These drugs will likely still be available, but they no longer will be labeled for growth promotion. For feed-grade medications, going against the label is a no-no. It’s illegal.

For growth-promoting feed products not on the “medically important” list, however, nothing will change. These products include ionophores like Rumensin or Bovatec, coccidiosis medications, and other medications that aren’t used much or at all in people. And – for now anyway – there are no changes planned in how water or injectable antibiotics are sold or prescribed.

Clearly, the powers that be recognize that sometimes animals need antibiotics, and putting those medications into feed is a safe, effective way to get those drugs into animals that are still eating. Even some drugs on the “medically important” list will still be available to treat, control, and prevent bacterial diseases in food animals. The “prevention” label is one that raises the dander of activist groups. But it appears that the FDA has learned what many of us know already: sometimes it’s best to use antibiotics in healthy-appearing animals when a disease is imminent, such as when a neighboring pen breaks with disease, or impending weather events increase the risk of illness.

A change is coming regarding how these products will be made available, though. Right now a handful of feed-grade antibiotics are covered under what’s called a “Veterinary Feed Directive” (VFD). When a producer wants to use one of these drugs, they need to obtain a VFD form from a veterinarian, kind of like a prescription. The producer needs to submit that to their feed supplier before they can obtain any of the feed. Swine or cattle producers that have used Pulmotil know what the VFD is all about.

The impending rules mean that all feed-grade antibiotics on the “medically important” list will now need VFD’s. The bag of tetracycline crumbles you picked up at the elevator to treat a pen of sick calves now will require a VFD form from a veterinarian before you can take it home. And it can’t be just any veterinarian, either. Your neighbor’s cousin’s daughter, who is a poodle veterinarian in Sacramento won’t cut it. The veterinarian needs to have an understanding of your cattle and your operation.

It’s frustrating when government agencies send down rules that affect the way we care for our animals. But to FDA’s credit, they are taking some of our concerns into consideration. To decrease the paperwork burden, they’re reducing some of the record-keeping requirements and will allow VFD’s to be transmitted and stored electronically. They’ve also put the definition of a veterinary-client-patient relationship in local and professional hands rather than a proscriptive federal regulation.

Even with these significant changes, there are still activists out there that don’t think they go far enough. They want bans on products rather than the voluntary approach the FDA is taking. They’re so sure that producers will abuse these products that they want documented evidence animals are at risk before antibiotics are used for preventive purposes.

Especially compared to those ideas, these changes are ones we can adjust to. They reflect the fact that, while the science is far from a clear link between livestock antibiotic use and problems in people, livestock producers and veterinarians realize that they too play a role in ensuring these products continue to work well–for animals and people alike–well into the future.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.