Photograph by Joel Sartore
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A Barred rock hen chicken takes a stroll.
Photograph by Joel Sartore
The Plate

Farmers and Producers Not Ready for Big Antibiotic Changes in 2016

The most significant changes in U.S. food-animal production in decades are coming by the end of this year, and farmers and producers aren’t prepared. That’s the warning of the nonpartisan Farm Foundation, based in Oak Brook, Ill., in a report called Stewardship of Antimicrobial Drug Use in Food-Producing Animals, released Wednesday morning.

The changes will make giving animals low doses of antibiotics to promote growth illegal, and new federal rules will require large-animal veterinarians to start approving antibiotic use. And a shortage of these veterinarians may make implementing the new changes even more challenging, Farm Foundation says.

The foundation released the report during the opening of a two-day summit on livestock antibiotic use Wednesday and Thursday in Washington, D.C. The report is based on a series of 12 workshops the foundation held across the country in 2015.

After the end of 2016, using antibiotics in livestock in the low-dose form called “growth promoters” will no longer be legal in the U.S. The long-time practice has not been without controversy. (See Growth Promoters: What if They Just Don’t Work Anymore?)

The change comes via three sets of rules published by the Food and Drug Administration in the past few years: Guidance 209, Guidance 213, and the Veterinary Feed Directive. Collectively, those three documents asked manufacturers to change their drug labels to disallow growth promoters, and handed responsibility to veterinarians to approve any other drug use on farms. The Guidances have gone into effect; the Directive will be final at the end of this year.

But that is all a little complicated and, the Foundation said, farmers don’t understand what is going on. Neil Conklin, the foundation’s president, said in a statement: “Despite months of work by organizations, agencies and media outlets, many stakeholders lack a full understanding of the policies that have been put in place by the FDA. This lack of knowledge is a critical barrier to successful implementation of the policies, which take full effect at the end of 2016.”

The report says the biggest burden of compliance will fall on cattle ranchers and raisers of sheep and goats, because they tend to be solo business owners. Producers of hogs, broilers and eggs, on the other hand, tend to work under contract for large integrated companies, so decisions about antibiotic use and the content of their feed (to which drugs are added) are made for them and not something they do themselves. (And in fact, many large poultry producers have already dialed down antibiotic use.)

In what seems to be a piece of good news, most farmers and production groups don’t oppose the changes. “Just under half of the online survey respondents anticipated a negative impact, while just over half expected either no impact or a positive one,” the report says.

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Farmers and food-production groups disagree on the impact that new FDA antibiotic rules will have on livestock raising. Graphic courtesy Farm Foundation

Until the guidances went into effect, farmers were able to buy and use antibiotics, as a single ingredient or pre-mixed into feed, without involving anyone else in the decision. Under the new rules, they will need a written authorization from a veterinarian, and they will have to be an ongoing client of that veterinarian, not someone they signed up with just to get the drugs.

That will impose a burden of paperwork and record-keeping, the foundation says. But the group is more concerned with whether the United States has enough veterinarians to cover the need.

“Difficulty in accessing veterinary services is not simply the result of an overall shortage of veterinarians, but of veterinarians who treat food-producing animals,” the report says. “Workshop participants identified issues with access to veterinary services not only in remote areas, but also in urban fringe areas where many veterinary practices are limited to companion animals.”

Veterinarians and their farmer clients will also have to rethink how they work together, the group warns: Vets think of themselves as giving broad animal-health management advice, but farmers tend to think of them as someone they call only episodically.

Veterinarians (green) and farmers (blue) disagree about what tasks they should be hired to perform.

Veterinarians (green) and farmers (blue) disagree about what tasks they should be hired to perform. Graphic courtesy Farm Foundation.

To meet the need for additional veterinarians, “we need to explore new models to deliver veterinary services in underserved areas” until new doctors can be trained, Conklin says.

But the new FDA rules may have an upside, the report adds. There are fewer large-animals veterinarians now because they found it difficult to make a living. With the guidances mandating ongoing involvement of veterinarians on each farm that wishes to use antibiotics, livestock veterinary practices may become lucrative again.