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By Larry Stalcup, Contributing Editor

In December, Reuters reported that an investor coalition that presses for corporate responsibility is calling on McDonald’s Corp., Denny’s Corp., and Sanderson Farms Inc., to stop buying or producing meat raised with medically important antibiotics.

VFDThus, the consumers’ call for reduced or zero use of antibiotics in food animals has escalated even more. This outcry has producers of the Big Mac and other food giants standing at attention. And it was one reason behind the establishment of the Veterinary Feed Directive by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

This Jan. 1 was the one-year anniversary of when the VFD went into effect.  According to the FDA, the directive “is a written statement issued by a licensed veterinarian in the course of the veterinarian’s professional practice that authorizes the use of a VFD drug or combination [of] VFD drugs in or on an animal feed. This written statement authorizes the client (owner or caretaker of animals) to obtain and use animal feed bearing or containing a VFD drug or combination [of] VFD drugs to treat the client’s animals only in accordance with the conditions for use approved, conditionally approved, or indexed by the FDA.”

 CALF News recently spoke with Rob Eirich, director of Beef Quality Assurance at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to get his take on how producers and feeders have reacted to the VFD. He also discussed the importance of antimicrobial stewardship and the effect of the industry’s efforts to educate consumers about animal health. Below are his comments.

From what you’ve seen, how has the VFD been accepted by both cow-calf and stocker operators and feedyards?

It has been a mixed response to the VFD regulation across the sectors of the industry. Feedyards were the most prepared coming into the regulations and worked closely with their consulting veterinarian to make it a smooth process. Cow-calf and stocker operations that participated in VFD education and information, and prepared by discussing the VFD regs and process are doing oky with the regulation.

If anyone did not take the opportunities to educate themselves and discuss VFDs with their veterinarian prior to implementation of the VFD regulation, they became frustrated because it is not business as usual when utilizing feed-grade antimicrobials.

Their biggest hurdle was the paperwork process and planning ahead. One challenge I have heard is the timing of determining the illness diagnosis, contacting your veterinarian, getting proper paperwork to appropriate people and getting product on hand to treat.

What have been the biggest obstacles for producers in meeting the VFD guidelines?

Again, it seems the paperwork process is the biggest obstacle across the board. The digital VFD paperwork is the smoothest route. It is taking some time to get everyone together on how VFDs are written, expiration dates, valid dates, dosage, diagnosis, etc. Secondly, some producers have felt like antimicrobials were being taken away from them to treat livestock. I think it has made all producers more aware of labels and making sure they treat the diagnosis with the right treatment/antibiotic.

With the VFD regulations, producers have also added an additional cost to their operation due to the additional time and paperwork. Vet clinics charge for writing VFDs and consulting like with a health certificate, etc. Lastly, producers have been concerned about the extra time needed to process the diagnosis of an illness and get a product on hand to treat sick animals. In small, rural veterinary clinics, the veterinarian might not be available right away to discuss the diagnosis and write the VFD. That adds time to getting an animal treated. Preparation is still the key in the VFD regulation.

What have been the biggest obstacles for veterinarians in working with producers to meet the VFD guidelines?

On the side of vets, most understand the VFD regulation and process. However, they also needed education and information to prepare ahead the implementation. Many vet clinics chose to work with the digital VFD option to help make the process smoother. The labels and dosage of drugs are available with a click. Those who use handwritten VFDs need to work closely with labels and calculating dosages.

I know many vets who worked with their clientele early on to prepare and look at herd health plans and protocols to ensure a smooth transition. Their biggest obstacle might have been working with producers who did not prepare and who may have thought the VFD wouldn’t affect them. Another obstacle has been working with producers who call at the last minute for a VFD, but never had a vet-client-patient relationship with the clinic. The other thing that may be an obstacle for vets is the added time with clients completing the VFD regulation required paperwork and filing, which also includes proper filing security and storage for three years.

The investor group’s call for McDonalds and others to stop buying or producing meat raised with medically important antibiotics reminded us of continued challenges with this issue. Can we expect to see more of this action to put pressure on food manufacturers and retailers?

The livestock industry has been the target of many consumer groups as the blame for antibiotic resistance, when resistance occurs naturally and has been looked at since the mid-century in the medical fields. This is the biggest challenge facing our industry. Continued pressure will come to remove medically important antimicrobials from livestock production. The major key is continued education of consumers. Many misunderstand how these antimicrobials are used in livestock production.

We know antibiotic resistance is real in both human and veterinary medicine, but we need to look at how we can better manage both with antimicrobial stewardship. Using these products correctly and judiciously in all areas of medicine is important. There are a number of organizations coming together from human medicine, animal health, environmental topics and animal science professionals to work on plans to improve stewardship of antimicrobials.

As an industry, we need to be part of antimicrobial stewardship and judicious use of antibiotics. Programs like Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) have incorporated these principles since the 1980s, as have other species’ quality assurance programs. As producers, continued implementation of these types of regulations and BQA guidelines must be a priority.

Again, the beef industry continues to help educate consumers about how antibiotics are properly used on animals and that there are strict guidelines for withdrawal times and other usage of antibiotics. Do you believe this has been effective? 

It can be effective, but we need more education done. Data from Nebraska and international surveys of households show that cost and taste are the biggest influencers for consumers when purchasing their food. They are seeking information about their food and most are using online resources or family and friends to get it.

They are also concerned with food-borne illness, GMOs, chemicals, antibiotics and production practices. But most are confused by what most of those labels on food truly mean. If you explain to consumers the proper use, withdrawal times, FDA labels and regulations involved, they have a better understanding.

One challenge is that many producers, feeders and processors are trying to gain market share with niche-labeled products. A lot of misinformation is out there. Many producers feel defensive because of the passion for what they do. Therefore, having these discussions with consumers can be difficult. Finding common ground to have these open dialogs about food production is a key element to consumer education being effective.”

Is the beef industry fighting a losing battle with consumer groups, even with the strict guidelines of the VFD?

The VFD regulation will show a decrease in antimicrobial usage in the livestock industry. There was already a decrease in uses of medically important antibiotics in 2016, as reported by FDA. Will the VFD be the last regulation of this type in the livestock industry? Probably not. Is the livestock industry using antimicrobials judiciously and following proper stewardship? YES!

Preparation remains the most important key with the VFD. Producers must work closely with their veterinarians to establish a strong herd health plan, including vaccination and treatment protocols.”

For more information on the Veterinary Feed Directive and how it may impact products used or needed in your operation, visit https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/DevelopmentApprovalProcess/ucm071807.htm.

Also, visit Rob Eirich’s UNL page at https://bqa.unl.edu/veterinary-feed-directive.

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