Photographer: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg

Giving Veterinarians Police Power

Farmers prepare for new FDA restrictions on animal antibiotics.

A ban on the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock is set to take effect by the end of 2016. For public-health advocates, the prohibition is potentially a huge victory in the battle against the spread of antibiotic resistance in humans. But for the ban to work, the country’s veterinarians will have to police the front lines of the $187 billion U.S. meat, dairy, and poultry industry.

Dr. Carie Telgen, who wrangles dairy cows for a living as a large-animal vet in upstate New York, says she believes the regulations are long overdue. “Consumers have lost a lot of faith in the food they’re eating,” says Telgen, whose practice is near Greenwich, about 180 miles north of New York City. “It’s good for us to step up and show them we’re doing the right thing.”

Directives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will make veterinarians the watchdogs against routine use of bacteria-fighting drugs, which many farmers and ranchers add to feed and water to promote growth and prevent disease in animals. Vets will have to write prescriptions for drugs that were previously available over the counter; the rules will also make feed-store operators less like salespeople pushing a product and more like pharmacists dispensing a controlled medication.

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Pressure on farmers to cut back on the drugs has been building for decades, with scientists drawing a link between increased use of antimicrobials for animals and the emergence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates these so-called superbugs attack more than 2 million people in the U.S. annually, with about 23,000 dying.

For years, livestock groups had complicated the FDA’s efforts to enact a ban, poking holes in the research. That position has softened, says Dr. William Flynn, deputy director for science policy at the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, because the science has improved. The debate about who or what to blame has been replaced by a shared understanding that any medically unnecessary use of antibiotics, be it for animals or humans, adds to the overall crisis of resistance. “We know enough,” Flynn says. “We need to recognize that we’re all contributing.”

Growing consumer awareness of the issue, reflected in decisions this past year by Panera Bread and McDonald’s to drop antibiotic-treated meat from their menus, has helped nudge the food industry along. In November a handful of companies, including Tyson Foods and Walmart, asked Congress to add more money to programs that combat antibiotic resistance by monitoring drug use on farms. Lawmakers did so in the appropriations bill passed in December.

The FDA has estimated one-time business compliance costs of the ban at $1.4 million. The 26 companies that make the antibiotics won’t take much of a hit. Elanco, a unit of Eli Lilly, says it will make up for lost revenue by selling alternative products.

Still, turning the FDA’s new rules into reality will make for a challenging year. “You’re not going to turn this ship around overnight,” says Will Hueston, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota. “We’re going to have to resolve a lot of questions across the supply chain.” Vets may face pressure from some livestock farmers to write needless prescriptions and “will need to say no,” says Michael Apley, a veterinary medicine professor at Kansas State University who serves on a White House advisory council on antibiotic resistance. “Morally, you’re wrestling with the added value you can provide to the livestock vs. needing to be responsible toward a broader public-health goal.”

The bottom line: Vets will be on the front line of an effort to curb use of animal antibiotics that contribute to the spread of superbugs.

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