URBANA, Ill. — Antibiotics are not a herd or flock health program.

“Antibiotics are important tools, and they are part of a health program, but there are lots of other tools,” said James Pettigrew, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois’ Department of Animal Sciences.

“On Dec. 11, 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a document that set in motion a series of processes that change the rules on the way we use antibiotics in food producing animals in this country,” Pettigrew said.

The debate about the use of antibiotics has been ongoing for a long time.

“FDA has given us a decision, and since nothing lasts forever, we will probably return to this debate,” the professor said. “But it is unlikely that the rules will change substantially in the next two to three years, so we need to understand the new rules and find ways to adapt to them.”

Pettigrew stressed that the new rules do not eliminate the use of antibiotics.

“They simply apply tighter restrictions on how we can use those antibiotics, so we will still have those very important tools available,” he said.

Pettigrew 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.”

Change Poses Challenge

It will be difficult for the industry to separate these two uses, Pettigrew said.

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

Using an antibiotic for disease prevention, Pettigrew 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.

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.

“There will be some challenges. We will have to do some things differently than in the past, and there may be increased costs associated with production of food animals,” he said. “While it’s going to be challenging, it won’t destroy the industry.”

The rules apply only to food-producing animals. Companion animals are not included, and the rules address the use of antibiotics in feed and drinking water. They do not address antibiotics given by injection.

“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.”

FDA is asking the companies that manufacture antibiotics to voluntarily change the labels of their products.

“The label is the legal document that is approved by FDA and describes how the drug is to be used,” Pettigrew said. “FDA is asking the companies to change the access of the drugs from over the counter to veterinary feed directive.”

When the label directions change, the professor said, “The way farmers use drugs has to change. There is nothing voluntary about these rules at the farm level.”

Veterinary Feed Directive

In an effort the make the program as efficient as possible, the FDA has proposed a revision to the veterinary feed directive, said Dr. Larry Firkins, DVM and U of I public engagement professor.

“The proposal intends to clarify and increase the flexibility on the administration requirements for the use of veterinary feed directive drugs,” Firkins said. “These proposed changes will result in greater veterinary oversight and supervision of feed and water use antimicrobials to treat, control and prevent disease in food animals.”

The deadline to submit comments to the proposed rule is March 12.

“I strongly recommend all producers discuss disease management protocols with their veterinarians and discuss changes to the veterinary feed directive,” Firkins said.

“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.”

The first thing producers should look at is biosecurity on their farms because the best way to avoid having to treat a disease is to prevent the animals from getting a disease.

“Animals get diseases from animals either by direct contact or via an intermediary such as a person’s boot, coveralls or from a truck,” said Hans Stein of the U of I Department of Animal Sciences. “Pay close attention to biosecurity and make sure there is no direct contact between different groups of pigs.”

Vaccinations are available to producers to prevent animals from getting diseases.

“Use vaccines correctly. There are a number of diseases we can control effectively by vaccinations,” Stein said.

It is important for the vaccines to be used as recommended.

“Sometimes vaccines don’t work because they haven’t been stored correctly, so make sure they are viable,” Stein said. “And vaccines do not create resistance, they prevent diseases.”

Feed additives may be an option for some producers.

“The effectiveness varies among animals and among the types of feed additives,” Stein said.

“We don’t have any alternatives that are as universally effective as antibiotics because antibiotics are unique in terms of how effective they are across a broad spectrum of animals and disease situations,” Stein said. “When we move away from antibiotics, we have to be more specific and evaluate each alternative before we use them.”