Most of us reading this are old enough to remember when Y2K was going to bring civilization as we knew it to a halt. Consultants consulted, consumers gnashed their teeth, reams of paper were used, and countless terabytes of bandwidth were slugged as we approached this imminent calamity.
In the end, we settled down to find that the actual problems were few, and that all of the hype had actually made us think very carefully about some of our computer applications and our dependence on them. After all, we had come to depend on computer technology for our day-to-day functions.
Now we are three months into surviving “Why VFD?” Although the technology was quite different, the hype, fear and stirring of the population were taken from the same playbook. And like Y2K, initiating the veterinary feed directive (VFD) has brought out some practices which need to be addressed.
So, why VFD? It’s really quite simple; antibiotics are a very valuable societal resource. Just as the animals you raise will eventually be food for our consumers, the antibiotics you use are a valuable tool for both humans and animals.
Mirroring the evolution of society to depend on computers, both human and veterinary medicine have evolved to rely on antibiotics to prevent, control, and treat bacterial disease. If you developed a severe infection 100 years ago, your doctor’s only real option was a product which was a derivative of arsenic. If your cow got foot rot, the only option was to try to keep her moving around to circulate blood and, hopefully, promote drainage.
Along came the sulfas in the ’30s and the first widespread use of penicillin in the ’40s, during World War II. A huge bloom of antibiotic discovery in the ’50s through the ’80s created the illusion that the war on bacterial pathogens was won, and that we could use these agents in any way we saw fit without concerns for decreasing their effectiveness. And we have used a lot of them.
In 2015, 95% of antibiotic sales (by weight) were for those with a food-animal label that were administered through feed or water. From 2009 to 2015, sales of antibiotics for use in the feed and water of food animals went up 26% and 41%, respectively. During this same time, sales of antibiotics for use by injection in food animals went down 9%.
About 70% of the antibiotics used in food animals are the tetracyclines (again, by weight). The majority of the injectable antibiotics have been under veterinary oversight in the form of a prescription; until 2017, use in the feed or water required no veterinary oversight.
The blame for antibiotic resistance challenges on the human side certainly can’t be laid entirely at the feet of animal agriculture; however, we also can’t argue that we are entirely disconnected. And, very importantly, it is naive to think that we can’t have an effect on our own ability to use antibiotics in our animals in the future.
There are a wide variety of in-feed applications of antibiotics. Some of these have a lot of scientific evidence behind their use; and for some, the science behind their efficacy was produced 40 to 50 years ago with much lower standards of proof. I have been part of some tense conversations between veterinarians and their clients where justification of a traditional antibiotic use in the feed has been questioned.
While not always pleasant, these conversations are very healthy, as veterinarians and producers work together to be good stewards of our valuable antibiotic resources. It’s easy to think, since you’ve been using a medicated feed for as long as you have been ranching, that it’s an effective practice. It’s time to think again. Be willing to have an open mind as you go into this conversation with your veterinarian.
The process isn’t perfect. The VFD has put veterinarians into an unsolicited regulatory role in an area where previous enforcement has been inconsistent. Pressures come from clients, feed manufacturers, dealers and regulators. There are multiple unanticipated details which we must continue to work out. In some locations, finding a veterinarian to provide a VFD can be challenging. Yet, there are many places where the process has gone smoothly.
While the process is healthy, the short-term ruckus can raise a lot of dust. I just ask that we keep the end goal in mind: that being the availability of effective antibiotics for us to use a hundred years from now.
Antibiotic resistance is a real challenge in humans and in the animals we raise. We wouldn’t think of not being good stewards of our land or animals; antibiotics require the same attention.