INA, Ill. — Veterinarians are being given wide leeway in determining how livestock producers may continue their use of antibiotics.

New rules written by the federal Food and Drug Administration will affect most operations involving food animals, but shouldn’t handcuff producers who depend on the drugs to fight illnesses, said James Pettigrew, a University of Illinois professor emeritus. He discussed the regulations at a meeting of beef producers here.

Despite continuing controversy about antibiotic use in livestock, the matter is settled. And producers will have plenty of time to adjust to the new rules.

“The debate is done. A decision has been made, and we have a new law. We now need to spend our energies and time focusing on how we’re going to adapt to the new rules,” Pettigrew said.

“There is some misunderstanding out there. Antibiotics are not being eliminated from the livestock industry. Not even close. There’s a three-year phase-in. So you don’t have to do something different next week than you did last week. It’s going to be a long, slow process.”

Growth Promotion?

While their use for growth promotion will not be allowed under the law, antibiotics still may be given to some animals to prevent disease.

That represents a gray area, Pettigrew acknowledged, since preventative care often results in more growth and vice versa. But vets will apparently have the final say.

“Quite frankly, we’ve never been very clear in the livestock industry why we’re using antibiotics,” Pettigrew said.

“We’ve always said we use antibiotics for disease treatment. And we always know when we’re doing that. We’ve also said we use antibiotics for disease prevention and for growth promotion. But we’ve never been completely clear about when we’re doing which.

“We know that if we use an antibiotic for disease prevention we get a growth response. We also know that if we use an antibiotic for growth promotion, we get disease prevention. We’ve simply never been very clear about which is which. Now, folks, we have to be clear.”

The producer will not be the one making that judgment.

“It seems to me that there’s a very strong signal coming from FDA in these rules, and that is, FDA has an enormous respect for veterinarians,” Pettigrew said. “They’re giving veterinarians a great deal of authority and a great deal of responsibility. I think this is going to force a closer relationship between the producer and the veterinarian.”

He also acknowledged that the new system could lead to “veterinarian shopping” by producers who seek more latitude in using antibiotics.

“FDA does not seem to be setting up a system to monitor veterinarians,” he said. “Will producers be veterinarian shopping? Absolutely. I don’t see any way that’s not going to happen. That means veterinarians are going to be under a lot of pressure to do what the producers want. I don’t know how we get around that.”

Fighting Disease

Under the new rules, antibiotics may not be used for growth promotion. And there will be some restrictions on use for disease prevention.

“You can use an antibiotic for disease prevention if you have evidence that the absence of that antibiotic will result in those animals getting sick with a specific disease,” Pettigrew said.

“You can’t feed an antibiotic just because you say it will keep your animals from getting sick. You have to say it’s going to keep your animals from getting X disease, and you know that it is, because experience tells you that. The fact that they got sick five years ago isn’t good enough. It has to be more current than that.

“It’s quite lenient that they are allowing disease prevention. But they expect that you have good evidence. The veterinarian has to be involved. It’s the veterinarian’s judgment.”

Cattlemen will not likely be affected as much as pork producers, Pettigrew said. But the rules also will cover the poultry and aquaculture industries.

Aquaculture could pose some challenges because biologists, rather than veterinarians, often make decisions on disease treatment.

Pettigrew said that, despite the more stringent regulations, producers should feel grateful because they are still able to use antibiotics for disease prevention.

“In Europe, if an animal is not sick, you cannot give it an antibiotic. So this is much more lenient than the European rules or the rules that have adopted in a number of other countries,” he said. “It may very well be that when you look back on this program five years from now, paperwork is the worst part of it.”