Drug-resistant bugs focus FDA scrutiny on antibiotics and livestock production
Marion veterinarian Jessica Laurin had more than 100 friends join her for dinner Thursday at Lincolnville Community Center, and she prepared the main course: 60 pounds of slow-cooked beef shoulder clods.
As Laurin walked among the crowd, some asked for her recipe. None asked if there were any antibiotics in the meat.
But as Laurin said in her talk after the meal, the US Food and Drug Administration has been looking for reasons some strains of bacteria in humans have grown resistant to treatment with antibiotics. In its search for answers, FDA has turned to livestock.
The largest share of antibiotic use is in livestock, not humans, and only about 1 percent of those antibiotics are given by prescription, Laurin said.
“The rest of it is over the counter, which means before 2017, you can just go buy it and use it as you need to,” Laurin said. “That’s what FDA is looking at.”
The theory, Laurin said, is that the use of antibiotics in livestock, particularly as feed supplements, contributes to bacteria developing resistance to them. Supposedly, some of those resistant bacteria have found their way to humans, where those antibiotics are less effective.
Laurin suggested experts are grasping for answers without much knowledge of how the livestock industry operates.
Veterinarian Brian Davis agreed.
“1.8 percent of the population is us feeding the world; 97.2 percent have no idea what we’re even doing,” Davis said. “Their perception of what we’re doing, based on McDonald’s, Tyson, etc. is what’s driving it. We do a good job, they just don’t know it.”
But the perception is strong enough that the FDA will implement new regulations on veterinarians and farmers to closely monitor antibiotics use.
“We have to live with that theory whether we like it or not,” Laurin said. “If I don’t police you guys, they’ll police me.”
Starting in 2017, farmers will have to get from veterinarians a “veterinarian feed directive,” similar in some respects to a prescription, in order to buy and use feed containing certain antibiotics or combinations of them.
Laurin said VFDs will have expiration dates and require antibiotics to be used just for conditions and circumstances to be printed on labels.
Acceptable levels of antibiotic use are more stringent because of the demands of foreign countries that have tougher standards but buy meat from the United States.
“American beef has become huge in outside countries,” Laurin said. “Every place tests for residues. FDA may be different than what some of these other countries are, so we try to meet the specs for any country that we may ship to. When we send that meat to the packing house, it has to test under a certain level.”
Davis said the regulation are so new that there are many questions veterinarians can’t answer yet, which puts increased importance on the relationships between vets, farmers and ranchers.
One thing that is clear is that veterinarians will have to change their schedules, Laurin said, to accommodate the needs of groups of livestock producers who will need VFDs at certain times of the year.
“For years, as far as veterinarians, we didn’t worry about feed; that’s what nutritionists were for,” Laurin said. “What FDA is saying is now we have to consider anything that’s medicated that goes into the feed, that the veterinarian now has to become more attentive to. It’s going to change things.”