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FDA will ban antibiotics for growth in livestock

FARGO — Food and Drug Administration rules that would ban feeding low-dosage antibiotics for promoting growth in livestock are three years away, but veterinarians say farmers are preparing for the inevitable.

The new regulations are for antimicrobial antibiotics, said Gerald Stokka, a veterinary and associate professor of animal science and livestock stewardship specialist at North Dakota State University. Stokka started talking about the change with cattle groups in North Dakota in December.

“This is going to come at us,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to avoid this.”

The FDA would allow some low-dose uses for prevention of illness in cattle, but only if the drug makers go through an expensive process of relabeling the products for that purpose.

“They’re asking them to voluntarily remove those labels, and the truth is they’ll do that,” Stokka said.

Antibiotics can promote growth by suppressing bacteria that are theoretically better, helpful in digesting grain.

Also under the proposed regulations, an antibiotic that would still be labeled for use would require a veterinary prescription, Stokka said.

A debate since the 1970s

The reason for new FDA regulations is a concern about human health, and a discussion that has been going on since the 1970s. The idea is that humans might contract antibiotic-resistant diseases through meat or meat products. Stokka said the risk is “close to zero” and that the overuse of antibiotics in humans poses a greater risk.

About 90 percent of livestock enterprises in the Northern Great Plains states and Upper Midwest are cow-calf operations, Stokka said. Typically, feed grade antibiotics aren’t used in those herds because they’re not necessary, he said.

Usually, antibiotics are given in cow-calf operations only as needed, and most often to individuals or a group of animals likely to contract a respiratory disease.

“The most efficient way is to put that into a feed,” Stokka said. “That would be most often around weaning time, when you’re taking calves away from mothers. You’d treat those calves in the feed with a certain dose of tetracycline for five days in a row and then stop. Most of the time, we don’t even do that.”

For bacteria to transfer from meat to a consumer, it would have to survive wash, handling, and cooking processes, and then a human consumer would somehow have to contract the bacteria on the meat and become ill.

“I don’t know of any case like that’s ever occurred,” Stokka said.

Feedlot enterprises

Although still a minority, an increasing number of cattlemen in the region are running feedlots that “background-feed” beef to about 800 pounds, and some of those are feeding them to a market weight. Feedlot operations typically include antibiotics as a dry powder into feed supplements — either at the elevator or at a feed company. Those antibiotics, including Rumensin (monensin) can offer a 10 to 15 percent feed efficiency, Stokka said.

It isn’t clear how much the new regulations will cost cattle farmers, or how the veterinarians will charge for the required service. Stokka said farm and ranch accessibility to veterinarians varies by region.

Hog producers will also be affected, said Tom Burkgren, a veterinarian and director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, based in Perry, Iowa.

Farmers would still be able to treat sick pigs in one of three ways — injections, in water or in feed, Burkgren said. Nursery-age pigs often need treatment when they’re freshly weaned, depending on the relative health in the families of pigs they’re coming from.

Burkgren said the antibiotic dosage labels for the feed purposes have been around since the 1950s and few have been added recently. Significantly, the FDA isn’t banning them outright, but is asking the companies to remove the product doses from the market over a three-year period, labeling their use “injudicious.” If they’re not removed voluntarily by then, the FDA indicates it might take legal action to ban them. Some companies say they’ll make the changes voluntarily; others haven’t, he said.

Common but strategic

Burkgren describes the use of the antibiotics as “common” but he couldn’t guess or estimate what percentage of hogs are fed antibiotics for growth purposes.

Their use is “strategic,” Burkgren said, involving such things as the cost of feed or the relative health of a herd. He said the improved feed conversion with the low-dose antibiotic is somewhere between 2 and 5 percent, but depends on several factors. He said he doesn’t know if new regulations will cost more by region, or where there is more animal concentration or disease.

“I think people are thinking about it,” Burkgren said, of how they’re going to cope. He said removing the antibiotic will simply be another variable in the feed ration checklist.