For the past year, we’ve discussed the FDA’s impending changes to antibiotic rules, and now they have become reality. As of January 1, label indications for “performance” uses of medically important antibiotics are gone, and most feed uses of antibiotics for prevention, control and treatment of disease now fall under veterinarian oversight.

Contrary to the worst-case fears of some producers, feed-grade antibiotics remain available to cattle producers, as do injectables and other formulations. Producers do, however, need to work more closely with their veterinarians to obtain medicated feeds by filing veterinary feed directive (VFD) forms.

Extra-label use of medicated feeds was illegal prior to implementation of the new rules, but over-the-counter (OTC) availability of those products created opportunities for misuse. Today though, veterinarians become more accountable, as the VFD forms they sign specify how the product will be used and on which animals, and the information on the form must comply with label specifications. A few producers might try to work around the law, but within the required veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR), it behooves the veterinarian to verify that VFD feeds are used strictly as specified on the VFD form. This leaves some producers scrambling for alternatives.

It also is important to note that the new rules do not mark a final endpoint for FDA’s antimicrobial stewardship policies, and further restrictions are likely. Already, FDA has announced an evaluation of antimicrobials for which the labels allow continuous use or do not define duration of use. More changes and restrictions are likely in the near future.

These changes provide opportunities for veterinarians to become more involved in their clients’ overall health-management programs. Part of that effort can be, and should be, an effort to reduce the need for antibiotic use through management, vaccination and other non-drug options for reducing disease exposure and boosting immunity. Instead of just signing off on a VFD order, the veterinarian can dig deeper, with a focus on solving core problems affecting animal health.

In this issue the lead feature examines the potential for delaying MLV vaccines for high-risk cattle arriving in feedyards, which could help reduce the need for antibiotic treatments. Low-stress handling practices at all stages of beef and dairy production can benefit immunity as well as animal welfare. Non-drug options such as probiotics, prebiotics, targeted mineral supplementation and nutritional management can support immunity, but these approaches might require more experimentation and collaboration between veterinarians, nutritionists and producers.

Hopefully, restrictions on antibiotic use will help drive innovation and adoption of alternatives that protect animal health and consumer confidence. 

If we can show progress in limiting antibiotic use in the short term, we stand a better chance of preserving their availability for the times they are most needed in the future.