Is it just me, or has this cold and flu season been a doozy? As I'm typing this, I'm sucking on a cough drop and keeping tissues within reach of my keyboard.

My infant daughter's pediatrician caut­ioned me that 1-year-olds are pretty much sick the entire fall and winter. The doctor didn't warn me that the parents would be sick all winter long, too.

Since Halloween, my daughter has suf­fered from two ear infections. Each time, her doctor prescribed antibiotics. The doctor gave me specific instructions to always give my daughter the correct dose of medication for the prescribed period of time.

During cold and flu season, we all realize how important antibiotics are in helping us feel better and get healthy if we’re struggling with a sinus or a respiratory infection.

Yet farm animals also get sick sometimes.  When that happens, farmers consult with their veterinarians to determine the best treatment. Farmers are also collaborating with researchers to develop more natural alternatives to antibiotics.

“(Farmers) are taking the approach of let’s focus on herd health, our management practices (and) all of those things that we can do to reduce the need for antibiotics. It’s an evolution in growing safe, healthy, nutritious pork,” explained Dr. Steve Larsen, a veterinarian and assistant vice president of science and technology with the National Pork Board based in Clive.

Farmers can use medically important antibiotics for animal disease prevention, treatment and control, but only with a veterinarian’s approval and oversight, Larsen explains.

“Farmers need a prescription from their veterinarian similar to when a mom goes into the doctor when their kid is sick and the pharmacist fills a prescription,” Larsen said.

Livestock farmers work closely with their veterinarians to protect animal health and overall food safety, Larsen says.

The National Pork Board also helps train farmers through its Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) Plus program, Larsen explained. PQA Plus outlines best management practices for farmers to ensure herd health, animal well-being and pork safety.

Larsen stressed that farmers base their herd-health decisions on the latest science and the guidance of their veterinarians.

“We also encourage (farmers) to develop herd health management plans using best practices to keep disease issues out of the barn — prevention rather than treatment,” he added.

Food safety remains a top priority for everyone involved in raising farm animals — from the farmer to the veterinarian, Larsen adds.

If a farm animal is given antibiotics, federal law requires that the animal must undergo a withdrawal period before it can be marketed for processing, Larsen said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Residue Program samples meat, poultry, milk and egg products to detect antibiotic residues. If testing finds that residue levels are above FDA-approved safe tolerance levels, the meat, milk or poultry product is banned from the human food supply.

As an extra layer of protection, USDA meat inspectors also have the authority to test farm animals at the processing plant for antibiotic residues if they suspect there is an issue, Larsen said.

Consumers should feel confident in the safety of the pork they buy at the grocery store, Larsen said.

He noted that a few years ago, the USDA lowered its approved safe cooking temperature for pork, from 160 degrees Fahrenheit to 145 degrees, based on improvements that farmers have made in pork safety over the last 20-plus years.

“The United States has the world’s safest, most nutritious food supply, and especially pork,” Larsen said. “So go out and have your pork chop and feel comfortable.”