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Future of Antibiotic Use Is ClearerFuture of Antibiotic Use Is Clearer

Veterinarians say the industry will cope with reductions, but fewer new product approvals will bring challenges.

Joe Vansickle

August 19, 2013

6 Min Read
Future of Antibiotic Use Is Clearer

Despite the apparent conflict over antibiotic use in livestock production, the opinions of producers, veterinarians and regulatory officials are not all that far apart when their goals are compared.

So says the executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) in an interview at the offices of the National Pork Board in Des Moines, IA.

“We all want antibiotics to be used in an effective way, we want to save pigs and we want to preserve the use of antibiotics,” remarks Tom Burkgren, DVM.


The fact is, “pigs still get sick and pigs still need antibiotics,” he says.

“That hasn’t changed at all. And the other thing that hasn’t changed is the judicious use of antibiotics. For producers and veterinarians, I think it is still top of mind.”

Because producers and veterinarians don’t like sick pigs, treatment, control and prevention with antibiotics remains a cornerstone of swine health, Burkgren emphasizes.

The fact is, a lot of current antibiotics are 50-60 years old, such as penicillin and the tetracyclines, yet they are still effective on the farm.

“That reinforces that we have to use what we have got judiciously, so we can maintain effectiveness,” he says.

The swine industry will manage quite well in that regard as long as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) keeps approving new antibiotics and new uses of antibiotics, and takes a science-based approach to how those antibiotics are approved and how they are used, Burkgren observes.

The swine industry is concerned about the use of antibiotics as well and prides itself on responsible use.

Producers are more closely scrutinizing what antibiotics are going into their pigs and what antibiotics are used in the finisher phase to avoid antibiotic residues, Burkgren says. 

Regulations on Horizon

Two federal regulations will soon influence antibiotic availability.

A draft of the veterinary feed directive has been issued and a proposed rule is due out this fall. Guidance Document 213 is also likely to be issued in final form this fall.

“These proposed regulations are interrelated because they are both guided toward increased veterinary supervision and removal of antibiotic growth promotion and feed efficiency claims,” Burkgren says.

These rules will restrict antibiotic availability for those uses.

“Is it insurmountable for the pig industry? No, I think we will survive and we will learn how to use them accordingly,” he says.

Stagnant Approval Process

It is unfortunate, however, that the regulatory structure on drug approvals has become fairly antiquated and has failed to approve enough new products.

“If you really want to combat antimicrobial resistance, then you approve new products,” Burkgren declares.

“But what we are saddled with is an approval process that doesn’t allow companies to go back and improve those old product claims. I think that is what is missing from the whole formula: how to get label claims for therapeutic use at a lower dose.”

The other issue, of course, is the lack of financial incentives to seek approval for animal-specific antibiotics, says Paul Sundberg, DVM, senior vice president for science and technology, National Pork Board.

“Even if the process is streamlined, that probably wouldn’t open the floodgates for ag products,” he says.


Beyond new therapeutic claims for animal drugs, flexible labeling supervised under the use of a veterinarian would allow for the proper dosage to fit the disease situation.

However, flexible labeling has been a topic of discussion with FDA for 20 years, and the agency has never entertained the notion, Burkgren says.

Judicious Drug Use Is Key

The goal of antibiotic use should not be to use it less; rather, it should be to use the product when it is needed and to use it correctly, Sundberg clarifies.

Veterinarians are developing evidence-based approaches to antibiotics, applying their knowledge on a farm-by-farm basis, treating individual pig needs instead of following a whole-barn approach, Burkgren adds.

The FDA has supported the swine industry’s programs (such as Pork Quality Assurance, or PQA, Plus) aimed at responsible antibiotic use.

Recently, the agency strongly refuted rhetoric from the Consumers Union (and others) on its website that there are tons of antibiotics fed to animals that are endangering human health, while relatively few antibiotics are given to humans (www.fda.gov), Sundberg says.

Further, Mike Apley, DVM, of Kansas State University, led and published a report last year that countered the commonly repeated fallacy that 80% of antimicrobials are used in pig production.

His report analyzed data from estimates of in-feed antimicrobials and concluded that the figure overestimates by as much as half the levels of drugs used in U.S. swine production.

Providing the Right Focus

Jennifer Koeman, DVM, director of producer and public health for the NPB, focuses on supporting producers and educating public health groups that the NPB’s goal is always responsible use of antibiotics.

As a big part of the revised PQA Plus section in the revised chapter on antibiotics, the emphasis is on understanding how to use antibiotics responsibly, and working with your veterinarian to achieve the most effective care of your herd.

The revised chapter portrays antibiotic use as part of an overall herd health program.

It discusses whether the appropriate drug is being used, whether it provides measurable benefits, whether the dose is correct, whether it has historically proven effective, and determining whether it still needs to be used. The value of hygiene is also covered.

Koeman explains to public health professionals that antibiotic resistance occurs naturally and is not solely due to drug use on the farm. Antibiotics need to be available, whether they are needed to treat human illness or sick pigs.

To spread the truth, she develops strategic industry partnerships and communicates the message about proper antibiotic use through a variety of symposiums.

Producer and veterinary partners engage consumers through a comprehensive program known as Operation Main Street, which includes training on public health and antibiotic use, Koeman says.

“I think it is a valuable way to communicate using terminology that the public understands,” she says.   


Read more about the antibiotic topic:

Battling Antibiotic Residues

Pork Board Addresses Penicillan Residues in Sows

About the Author(s)

Joe Vansickle

Senior Editor

Joe, a native of Indiana, is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He worked on daily newspapers in Albert Lea, MN and Fairmont, MN, before joining the staff of National Hog Farmer in 1977. Joe specializes in animal health issues, federal regulations, environmental concerns, food safety and writing about the swine veterinary community. Joe has won several writing awards from the Livestock Publications Council. In 2002, he earned the Master Writer Program Award from the American Agricultural Editors’ Association.

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