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Feds tighten restrictions on meds for farm animals

FRAZEE, Minn. — Since antibiotics came into general use in the 1930s and 1940s, they have been widely available to American farmers to use on their livestock at their discretion.

Until now, antibiotics for food animals have been easily obtained at feed stores, fleet supply stores or online.

Farmers with sick livestock often take care of the problem themselves.

That will change Jan. 1, when the Veterinary Feed Directive kicks in, regulating the use of antibiotics in the food and drinking water of livestock.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now requiring veterinary oversight whenever antibiotics are put into the food or drink of cattle, swine, poultry and other food animals.

That means farmers will need to get a prescription or a "feed directive" from a veterinarian familiar with their operation and the needs of their animals, according to Veterinary Practice News.

Antibiotics have sometimes been used to improve the efficiency of livestock feed or to fatten up animals, but that practice can raise the risk of antibiotic resistance in people and animals.

And right now the germs are winning.

Since the first sulfonamide was developed in 1935, it's been a race to develop new antibiotics as older ones become compromised.

But the burden of complying with the new regulations will fall on already-overburdened veterinarians.

"There's a certain amount of trepidation among veterinarians around the country," said Randall E. Lindemann, owner of Acorn Lake Veterinary Service in Frazee. "We will have a certain amount of responsibility in this, especially in record-keeping."

The process requires multiple copies of each veterinary feed directive (which are good for up to six months) and must kept on file for two years.

Lindemann said veterinarians may want to consider using an electronic record system like that provided by Global VetLINK. "They've been gearing up for this too, so boilerplate forms are available," he said.

Lindemann isn't overly concerned about the new regulations.

"There will be changes and the industry will have to get used to it," he said. "Veterinarians shouldn't be too worried about participating in this. Like anything else, we'll get used to it, and then we'll see it's not too bad."

And he believes most producers in this area are already careful in their use of antibiotics.

"When antibiotics are given to fairly large numbers of animals, it's usually for short periods of time and for limited amounts," he said, "and I believe it was used appropriately already."

A common rule of thumb for veterinarians is "if we have to treat 10 percent of the animals in a pen or group then we should treat the entire group," he said.

In general, the government should take care not to overburden veterinarians with new bookkeeping and regulatory mandates, lest even fewer students go into the field, he added.

Although college costs are similar to that of a medical doctor, "veterinarians are the poorest paid of any health care professional," he said. "I'm not complaining. The problem is largely of our own making — we're dedicated to helping people and animals and keeping them healthy."

But there are few health insurance dollars paid out for companion animals and none for farm animals, he said. "Our fortunes are often tied to that of livestock — when prices drop it can be difficult to go out on farms and collect fair fees for our work."

But Lindemann does not consider the move to regulate antibiotic use on the farm to be government overreach.

"It's an important thing," he said. "There are wide-ranging potential risks (with antibiotic resistance) so it's a wise decision for public health."