Directive leads to less use of antibiotics in cows and pigs


The Food and Drug Administration publishes an annual report on the sales of antibiotics used in food animals.

Such a report is probably too old-fashioned for most, but I think it’s quite interesting, especially when I relate it to the antibiotic use practices of the vets and the farms I work with.

According to the most recent report from 2020, animal health companies sold slightly less of these products compared to 2019. Over the past three years, that number has been fairly stable. The previous year (2017), however, showed a sharp drop in sales of antibiotics to livestock.

Breeders and their vets all know why. On January 1, 2017, the rule of the Veterinary Foods Directive entered into force. This rule required cattle ranchers to obtain a form (similar to a prescription) from a veterinarian before they could add antibiotics to their animals’ diets. Before that, food ingredients such as tetracycline could be purchased over the counter without veterinary supervision.

If the intention of the feed directive rule was to reduce the sales of antibiotics to food animals, it worked. This required new step of having a veterinarian approve the act of throwing tetracycline crumbs into the feed wagon has allowed these practices to be evaluated and further refined. The hassle factor probably also played a role. The extra paperwork step prompted some producers to see if they could do without it. And in many cases, they could.

I must explain here that we are only talking about “medically important” antibiotics: those deemed important for human health, not necessarily animal health. Older drugs such as tetracyclines, penicillin, and sulfonamides are included in this medically important designation, along with cephalosporins, macrolides, and fluoroquinolones used in injectable drugs. Food additives such as ionophores do not fall into this category. They have no use in human medicine.

Preserving the usefulness of antibiotics for the treatment of human infections is the goal of FDA regulation for drugs in food animals. Using fewer antibiotics means a lower chance that bacteria will develop resistance against them. As animal keepers, we also need to recognize the importance of keeping these products available and effective in treating infections in the critters in our care.

Not all classes of antibiotics or livestock contribute equally to the overall purchases of these medically important drugs. Cattle and pigs combined account for over 80% of sales. Food grade drugs, based on kilograms of antibiotics sold, make up 60%, while aquatic antibiotics make up 30% of the total. You might think you use a lot of injectable antibiotic vials on your farm, but they don’t contribute much overall. Two-thirds of the total are tetracyclines, most of which are used in livestock feed.

I hesitate to call the last three years the world the “Post-veterinary Food Directive” because the directive is still alive and well, anchored in the production and business practices of cattle and pig farmers and their veterinarians. We are therefore unlikely to see huge year-over-year changes in the sales of antibiotics for food animals in the years to come, unless other rule changes. so drastic are not made.

This is my expectation and I hope that the patterns of sale and use of antibiotics in cattle gradually diminish. This would indicate that our use of these essential animal health tools is increasingly focused. More importantly, it would indicate that we are improving ourselves with the methods of disease prevention, nutrition and stress reduction for the benefit of our animals.

A national report like this is made up of the global actions of thousands of breeders like you. If you’re like most, the use of antibiotics on your farm probably varies dramatically from year to year. Bad weather, changes in the types of animals you keep, nutrition, and other factors all affect the need to treat your animals. But I hope your gradual trend is downward as well.

Many producers have discovered, thanks to the transition of the Veterinary Foods Directive, that their veterinarian is much more than a seller of antibiotics – they have provided valuable advice on preventive practices that reduce the need for these products. Chances are you can too.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or 605-688-5171.