A debate about the use of antibiotics in food animals has been ongoing for some time. On Dec. 11, 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced steps to address one approach to the antimicrobial resistance in human medicine.

These new rules do not eliminate the use of antibiotics in food animals. However, livestock producers will need to do some things differently than in the past.

“While it’s going to be challenging, it won’t destroy the industry,” stressed Jim Pettigrew, University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences professor emeritus.

The rules only apply to food-producing animals. Companion animals are not included.

In addition, the rules address the use of antibiotics in feed and drinking water. Antibiotics given by injection are not included.  

“These rules only apply to medically important antibiotics in human medicine, and that list includes most of the antibiotics currently used in animal production, but not all of them,” Pettigrew said. “It does not include Ionophores, Carbadox, Bacitracins and Flavomycins.”

The professor outlined key elements of the new policy.  

“The FDA says there will be no use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals for production purposes such as growth promotion or improvement of feed efficiency,” he said. “However, these antibiotics can be used for disease prevention.”  

It will be somewhat difficult for the industry to separate these two uses.

“We have good evidence that when we use antibiotics for growth promotion, we have obtained some disease prevention,” Pettigrew said. “Now we have to be more clear about the purpose of the use of antibiotics.”  

Using an antibiotic for disease prevention, he said, assumes that there is a specific disease identified that will cause problems on that farm unless the antibiotic is used.  

“The rules also say all use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals should be under veterinary supervision or oversight,” he said. “The FDA put a great deal of responsibility on the veterinary profession for the application of these new rules.”  

Veterinarians will make the determination whether there is a specific disease that justifies the use of an antibiotic as a preventative.

“It is important for the animal producer and veterinarian to work closely together, and in many cases, that already happens,” Pettigrew said. “These new rules are pushing us in the direction of a closer relationship between animal producers and veterinarians.”  

FDA has set a target of full implementation of the new rules in three years.

“You do not have to make major changes next week. The changes will occur in an orderly manner throughout the next three years,” Pettigrew said.  

He stressed that antibiotics are not a herd or flock health program.

“They’re important tools, but there are lots of other tools,” he said.  

“We have a lot of work to do in three years,” Pettigrew said. “But we don’t have to panic about something that has to be done in the next few days.”