When her son gets sick, Melissa Moretz, who raises hogs with her husband in north central Iowa, takes her kiddo to the doctor to get him checked out, and if needed, she obtains a prescription to help him get back on his feet. For her and many other caregivers, that line of action is really a no-brainer.  Yet if Melissa takes the same approach with her livestock, there are questions and push-back.

Melissa knows to provide a good, healthy life for her pigs, she needs to have many tools available to her, including antibiotics. However, she doesn’t just decide to use them on a whim. That’s because her use of antibiotics is regulated by law, and she wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Veterinary Feed Directive, or VFD, was put into place in 2017 by the Federal Drug Administration. It puts stringent requirements on obtaining and administering medically-important antibiotics from the same antibiotic classes that are used for human health. This represents roughly 90 percent of all antibiotics used in animal agriculture. There’s a long list of requirements for obtaining a prescription for livestock through a VFD—much harder and more specific than anything I have to go through at my doctor’s office!

And to be clear, because this law was put into place to encourage more “judicious” uses of antibiotics for livestock, it also effectively removed them as an option to promote animal growth. Simply put, that practice is not allowed, yet too many have missed that point.

The VFD helps make sure animals are given the right medication, at the right dose for the right amount of time. “Based on the shared concerns on antibiotic resistance, many pork producers were already reviewing their antibiotic usage and looking for ways to use them more judiciously even before the new regulations took effect,” said Chris Rademacher, Iowa State University’s Clinical Associate Professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine.  As supporting evidence, he points to the 14 percent decline in antibiotic sales to livestock leading up to the implementation of the new law. These VFD regulations allow for pig farmers to work alongside their veterinarian to “refine the [antibiotic] usage in order to protect animal health and well-being,” he added.

Farmers are also looking for ways to promote animal health without the use of antibiotics, after all, healthy animals mean healthy food for our families. This makes prevention through biosecurity, nutrition and low-stress handling key. In a study done by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), modern advances in animal agriculture are actually helping curb the need for antibiotic use for food animals. For example, pigs housed on slatted floors where their manure can be stored away from them and newer “closed-style” watering systems (as opposed to open troughs) help decrease disease contamination. As do the protocols for those working in livestock barns.

Although some consumers and retailers may push for food products to be raised without antibiotics ever, I think many would agree it is always humane to treat a sick animal and not let it suffer. And the truth of the matter is, even if antibiotics were not an option to treat sick animals, the case of antibiotic resistance in humans would not go away. It’s an issue that has many causes, some of which do not relate to animal agriculture at all, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria occurring naturally in 30,000 year-old samples of undisturbed frozen soil and the overprescribing of antibiotics in medical practice

I’d encourage before we point fingers solely at livestock farmers for the problem of antibiotic resistance, we also consider the medications being prescribed for every sniffle or sore throat, and respect the lead of livestock farmers like Melissa, who are working toward being part of the solution.   

By Caitlyn Lamm. Caitlyn is Iowa Farm Bureau’s public relations specialist.