We need strict rules on livestock antibiotic use

Piglets at this farm in Iowa were given antibiotics to ward off illness and to promote faster growth with less feed. But there’s growing concern about overuse of drugs in livestock.
Piglets at this farm in Iowa were given antibiotics to ward off illness and to promote faster growth with less feed. But there’s growing concern about overuse of drugs in livestock. New York Times file

In spite of efforts to reduce the overuse and misuse of antibiotic drugs in humans and animals, antibiotic resistance is a top health concern facing our country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic-resistance-related infections kill 23,000 people and sicken millions each year.

As veterinarians, we – along with our public health, physician and industry partners – are concerned about this growing global problem. That’s why we embrace government’s involvement in combating antibiotic resistance and expanding the important role that veterinarians play in protecting public health.

Senate Bill 27, supported by the California Veterinary Medical Association and passed by the Legislature, is before Gov. Jerry Brown. It would place tough new restrictions on medically important antibiotics used in livestock animals raised for food. It would also call for increased oversight by requiring a producer to get approval from a veterinarian for antibiotics used in animal feed, which are currently sold over the counter with unrestricted access.

These new rules follow a plan outlined by the Food and Drug Administration several years ago to eliminate the unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals, such as those used to promote growth. If the bill becomes law, California will lead the nation in addressing this serious public health threat, and consumers can be even more confident that the food we eat is safe from harmful drugs.

Our involvement in this issue is critical. In fact, on Tuesday the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the Farm Foundation brought together the state’s livestock producers, their feed suppliers and veterinarians to discuss the new guidelines.

Working to improve food safety and safeguard public health isn’t new for veterinarians. An integral part of the veterinary medical curriculum is learning responsible use of controlled drugs in food animals. The UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine also engages in research and public service programs to help prevent unwanted drugs from entering our food supply.

Our programs include the federally funded Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, an important resource for livestock producers and veterinarians to prevent illegal or harmful residues of drugs, pesticides and other chemical agents from contaminating food from animals.

Our Center for Food Animal Health supports research and outreach in areas such as vaccine development that eliminate or reduce the need for antibiotics. The California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, a partnership with the state Department of Food and Agriculture, provides surveillance and diagnostic testing on milk and dairy products for drug residues and antibiotics that may have been used to treat sick cows.

The Western Institute for Food Safety and Security conducts international outreach on food safety and antibiotic resistance. And many individual faculty conduct research using state-of-the-art methods in genomics to rapidly identify food-borne pathogens, or to test for factors and conditions that make bacterial infections deadly.

Veterinarians embrace a growing role in safeguarding public health. Working together with animal agriculture stakeholders and producers, we can support optimal animal health and minimize the overuse of antibiotics. And as a global leader in veterinary medicine, UC Davis is training the next generation of veterinarians to properly use antibiotics.

Michael Lairmore is dean of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Terry Lehenbauer is director of its Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center.