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How Farms Work: Antibiotic restrictions on farms


Beginning in January of this year, the FDA began to strictly regulate the use of medically important for human-use antibiotics. This is due to the overuse of antibiotics as a growth supplement, as antibiotic use in feed has shown to decrease animal consumption while increasing rate of gain. This is thought to be due to less competition in the animal’s gut with natural bacteria for nutrients.

The two largest changes are to eliminate the use of human medically important antibiotics used for growth promotion and increase the list of feed-grade antibiotics classified as Veterinary Feed Directive drugs. Until January, most antibiotics available for use in animal feeds have been available over the counter without veterinarian approval. With the new rules, all human medically important antibiotics are required to have veterinarian approval.

How does antibiotic resistance in animals relate to humans?

While the transmission of bacteria from animals to humans is thought to be very complex and not well understood, there are two main ways of possible transmission. The first being through food contaminated by bacteria. This could be through improperly cooked meat, or vegetables infested by antibiotic resistant bacteria applied by manure on the crops. How often bacteria infect the gut and transfer resistance genes are currently unknown. Unfortunately, most studies that focus on the transmission of resistant bacteria could be scrubbed due to the possibility of human-human transmission.

Another route of transmission could simply be through touch, such as in the case of Staph, or Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). If antibiotic resistance increases, drugs that have been used to treat infections in humans for years could be rendered ineffective, making infections harder to fight.

Does this affect all antibiotics?

Not all antibiotics are affected by the new rules, such as injectable antibiotics. The goal of the FDA is to decrease routine use on farms to curb resistance. Drug companies have agreed with the FDA to voluntarily revise labels to remove growth promotion as an allowable use. This means veterinarians are no longer allowed to write prescriptions for this purpose.

What does this mean for the farmer?

These new rules have quite an effect on farmers, as they are no longer able to diagnose animal symptoms on their own. The downside to these rules for farmers is that veterinarians are not always available and will visit farms at the farmer’s expense. This may cause farmers who use these feeds to treat cattle to possibly wait longer to see if there is an improvement in the animal’s health if the process is more lengthy and costly. This could lead to higher death loss if the animal is not treated in a timely manner.

A VFD order can only apply up to six months, with three weeks being the standard. If there is any unused product, it must be thrown away at the expiration of the prescription. It must be kept by the farmer for two years from the date of writing and must be presented if the farm is inspected by the FDA.

According to a survey conducted by the Animal Health Institute in 2007, it was estimated only 13 percent of antibiotics were used for growth and efficiency. Many believe efforts to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance is better spent to minimize the transmission risk of all food-borne pathogens regardless of antibiotic resistance. Better hygiene on farm and during processing could minimize risk of illness from food-borne illness. Even in the case of salmonella, a disease with over 1.2 million cases per year, the CDC estimates only 6,200 of those 1.2 million cases are caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria, which could have been easily prevented.

Antibiotic use should be regulated to prevent resistant strains of bacteria in animals. Lack of supporting evidence showing positive effects leaves one to question whether efforts to prevent resistance are better spent preventing infections, as most human infections resulting from antibiotic-resistant bacteria are due to human-human transmission. According to the CDC, researchers found that 1 in 3 antibiotic prescriptions in humans are unnecessary. That leaves us to ask if our efforts are better spent reducing overuse of antibiotics in humans, rather than our food.


Ryan Kuster, the force behind the informational and insightful YouTube channel How Farms Work, is a beef and crop farmer based in Wisconsin. He created his channel in 2012 to help show non-rural people how farming is done in the Midwest.

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