Along with consumers’ increased focus on where their food comes from and how it is raised comes the inevitable question of how antibiotics are used in pork production.

A recent poll released by Consumers Union, the public policy arm of Consumer Reports, showed that 86 percent of respondents agreed that consumers should have the option to buy meat and poultry raised without antibiotics and that more than 60 percent of respondents said they would pay a minimum of 5 cents more per pound for the meat. (The report is available at http://bit.ly/Q1WJNj.)

Some legislators and animal agriculture opponents are stirring up the issue while setting science and risk assessments aside. The argument is that antibiotic resistance in humans is largely due to agricultural use. However, no peer-reviewed scientific studies support that theory.

 “All peer-reviewed scientific risk assessments have demonstrated a negligible risk of human health harm due to livestock antibiotic use,” says Scott Hurd, DVM, Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine and task force chair of the Council of Agricultural Science and Technology.

Nor do opponents offer concrete data showing that limiting antibiotic use in livestock would eliminate antibiotic resistance in humans. In fact, food safety and public health could be negatively impacted by curbing such use. “If there is a decrease in animal health, there will be public consequences,” Hurd says. “Healthy animals are vital for safe meat products.”

Still, opponents have succeeded in raising doubt in consumers’ minds about livestock producers’ need to use antibiotics, and the high-profile topic is taking on critical mass.

The Food and Drug Administration has stepped up with new actions. It has ruled that currently approved antibiotic uses such as increased rate of weight gain or improved feed efficiency are no longer appropriate for “medically important” antimicrobial drugs such as tetracycline. (Check out “Big Changes Ahead for Antibiotics,” May PORK  magazine at http://tinyurl.com/bnatkhj.)

In its draft proposal “Guidance 213” published in April, FDA has asked drug manufacturers to voluntarily give up label claims for growth applications within three years. If completed and published in final form, the reduced application scope would likely eliminate these performance approvals. (Go to http://1.usa.gov/Q4fH77.)

With the lack of scientific evidence, many in agriculture wonder if FDA is bowing to pressure from opponents. “FDA has not demonstrated whether the actions will have any effect on antibiotic resistance,” according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Regardless, changes in antibiotic use are coming. “It usually takes nine months to 12 months to receive a final guidance from FDA, so we expect final changes in antibiotic availability to be completed within four years,” says Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council.

Clouding the issue further is the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act — or PAMTA — sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). If approved, the legislation would reduce or eliminate the use of low-level antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion. Slaughter has tried repeatedly to get PAMTA passed.

Actions you take now are key to keeping your business prepared. “Producers need to work with their veterinarians and nutritionists to keep fine-tuning all management practices as part of a health program,” Wagstrom says. 

While antibiotics are important, they are only one tool used to produce healthy pigs. Others, such as biosecurity, facility management, pig flows and vaccination, work to minimize diseases and keep pigs healthy. “Low-level feed-grade antimicrobial use is just one tool that has been highly effective in some cases,” says Harry Snelson, DVM, communications director, American Association of Swine Veterinarians.

The nursery and early grower phases may have the most to lose and ultimately present the biggest challenges, since antibiotics commonly administered at growth-promotion levels help young pigs adapt to numerous growth and environmental transitions.

“Removing feed-grade antimicrobials currently used for growth promotion may result in increased uses of therapeutic antimicrobials to address disease outbreaks that are effectively controlled by low-level antimicrobial use,” Snelson says. “In the absence of growth-promotion uses, all the other management factors will have to be enhanced, and herds will have to be monitored closely for the emergence of disease agents.”

Fortunately, most operations are actively involved with a veterinarian to diagnose health problems, prescribe treatment strategies and design herd health-management programs and biosecurity protocols.

FDA also wants to increase veterinary oversight of antibiotics used to treat diseases, which may cause problems for producers in remote areas, as well as those with small herds. “We are concerned that some producers may encounter problems accessing needed antimicrobials if they operate in areas lacking veterinary services,” Snelson adds.

In a draft text for proposed regulation, FDA stated that its goal is to increase your veterinarians’ role in on-farm antibiotic use by transitioning all feed-grade antimicrobials to a “Veterinary Feed Directive” status.

“This means that a veterinarian will have to be involved in the decision-making process when it comes to utilizing feed-grade antimicrobials on the farm,” Wagstrom says. “Fortunately, swine veterinarians and producers have a long history of using the VFD process, and FDA appears willing to make it less onerous on veterinarians, producers, manufacturers and feed mill operators.”

In July, NPPC submitted a letter to FDA regarding the proposed regulations, requesting certain changes. Specifically, NPPC outlined concerns over the proposed rules covering prescription refills, method of estimating the number of animals treated and VFD expiration dates, among others. (Go to http://bit.ly/Q4htFh to read the letter.)

In addition to the FDA initiatives, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has announced new and more efficient

residue-testing methods in meat products. “Pork has had minimal violative antimicrobial residues for many years, and knowing about this new testing procedure and program will help producers maintain that level of results,” says James McKean, DVM, Iowa State University Extension.

The new testing methods for veterinary drugs will allow FSIS to screen for a range of compounds including antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and growth promoters. “It’s important for producers to read and follow all product withdrawal times; properly clean out feeders, water lines — and in some cases, floors — after the use of medicated feeds or water,” McKean says.

Even with the pork industry’s proven track record of providing a safe and wholesome product, you can count on changes in the role of antibiotics in hog production. Paying attention to your on-farm practices will be crucial to maintaining and even growing consumers’ confidence in you, your industry and your product. 

Set Your Barn Priorities

With on-farm antibiotic use under increased scrutiny by legislators and the public, growth-promotion claims will likely change. Here are several barn-management practices you can incorporate now to be better prepared.

“Know what health challenges exist in your herd and work with your veterinarian to determine what alternatives might work for your operation,” says Lisa Becton, DVM, director of swine health information and research, National Pork Board. “Continue to implement the basics of good production with the goal to minimize any stress to the pigs.”

Begin your efforts by focusing on getting the highest-health pig at farrowing.

“Consider sow pre-farrowing vaccines for specific disease challenges,” Becton says. “At farrowing, focus on pig care by drying off piglets and ensuring immediate colostrum intake.” You also may need to re-evaluate production practices such as pig flow and biosecurity with your veterinarian to target areas of disease risk.

While each farm has unique disease challenges, enteric issues in weaned pigs, such as post-weaning diarrhea and ileitis, are the more common challenges, Becton notes. An increased focus on barn hygiene may be part of the solution. Emphasize sanitation for all production areas, including farrowing stalls, to reduce the amount of bacteria present. Other recommendations include:

  • Use soap degreasers between pig groups to reduce the biofilm on equipment and walls.
  • Use appropriate disinfectant, making sure to attain proper dilution rates and contact time according to label directions.
  • Allow for sufficient drying time — complete drying kills pathogens.

You also may have to re-evaluate downtime between groups, weaning age, cross-fostering practices, nutrition and feed-management strategies as well as vaccination programs. The goal is to minimize stress on pigs through all production phases.

Close monitoring of feed and water intake gives important clues to health status. “If you notice an unexplained drop in feed or water consumption, ask your veterinarian to address potential issues,” Becton says.

By addressing the cause, on a timely basis, you may be able to minimize costly treatments or reduce medication use.