Avoiding violative residues takes cooperation from everyone in the food chain
When livestock producers identify a sick animal, the decision of when to treat it – and with what product – is becoming increasingly complex. Government regulations combined with consumer demand for wholesome, safe food are two of the major forces behind any treatment decision.
“Our responsibility to the consumer is to deliver wholesome products, like beef, absent of any residues,” notes Jim Sears, DVM, senior technical services veterinarian at Bayer HealthCare LLC Animal Health. “Of course there are regulations that establish rules and as to what can be administered, but we also have to meet consumer concerns with regards to providing safe products.”
Chemical products, including antibiotics, used in beef cattle production must go through a rigorous testing process before being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Withdrawal times posted on antibiotic labels are established as part of the approval process to specify the number of days that must pass between the last antibiotic treatment and when the animal can be offered by producers as food. This helps ensure a safe, wholesome product without any chemical residue.
A key step for producers is being able to demonstrate they have followed these rules, Sears says.
“What is required is good identification and good records at the production site so you can identify and keep track and document,” he says. “That’s a big part of this equation to be able to document and show you have followed these various rules, know what the rules are and have records and identification systems.”
Listening to consumers
Concerns over violative residues reflect a general public discussion about antimicrobial use in livestock. Across the millions of American beef consumers, livestock producers will find a range of opinions on antimicrobial use. Some consumers may want as little antimicrobial use as possible to help lower the opportunity for antimicrobial resistance. Yet, education on how these products relieve animal suffering and enhance health helped find common ground in the discussion, Sears notes.
“On the one hand, antibiotics are a wonderful tool. On the other hand, to whatever extent we can, consumers would like to see antibiotic usage reduced. Some of those attitudes are formed by some misinformation,” he says. “The industry needs, and wants, antibiotics to help reduce suffering and death.”
There is some confusion among consumers about antibiotic use, antibiotic free products and antibiotic resistance, adds Bill McBeth, DVM, associate director with Zoetis Veterinary Services. This is an area that’s ripe for education within the livestock industry and among consumers.
“For example, the steps that you would take to mitigate antimicrobial resistance are very broadly focused and probably are more important in human medicine as opposed to the animal side. A lot of people don’t understand that they have a real role in terms of their own antibiotic use,” McBeth says.
Animal well-being is also important to keep in mind, he notes. If an animal is ill, it deserves the best possible treatment, which may include antibiotics.
Not the VFD
Regulations related to antibiotic residues, while related, really are separate from regulations on medicated feed additives, like the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), McBeth says.
“Really the focus of the VFD is not on violative residue so much as judicious use of antimicrobials,” he says. “The VFD is going to change the way food animal vets and producers approach the broad use of medicated feed additives.”
On the other hand, chemical residues, including antibiotic residues in both meat and milk are primarily the result of individual animal treatments, not medicated feed additives.
These treatments have been regulated for many years through collaboration between the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) of the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) through meat and milk inspections. In fact, these inspections test for a broad array of chemicals that includes not just antimicrobials, but also parasiticides, heavy metals and more.
“In the U.S. inspection system, every animal, including poultry, is looked at,” McBeth says. “An inspector may see an animal before or after slaughter, that leads them to believe it may have been treated with an antibiotic and present a residue risk based on disease conditions that may be present – for instance a dairy cow with mastitis. The concern is two-fold. First, is this animal wholesome and fit to eat? Second, does it have residue of antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medications and should it be flagged for testing?”
Such animals will be tested for an array of chemicals, and this testing process has improved dramatically with advancements in technology that allow for more samples to be tested for more compounds.
Livestock producers have been meeting the challenge to avoid residues even with advancements in the number of chemicals tested for and the sensitivity of those tests. The level of violative residues, while still unacceptable, appears to be declining. However, there are still improvements to be made, McBeth notes.
The primary ways livestock producers can help reduce antibiotic residues is to simply follow the product’s label guidelines and observe withdrawal times, Sears says.
“Withdrawal times are established by the government and are based on very robust scientific testing and measurements,” he says. “The second thing is to use these products in the way in which they are labeled and approved and keep the records.”
McBeth adds that producers should only send healthy animals to slaughter. Often animals are culled from the herd due to illness. This is a critical time to consider the risk of violative residues.
“One of the biggest single factors contributing to residues is sending an animal to slaughter that’s not completely healed,” he says. “If you have any doubt in your mind about the health of this animal, don’t send it to harvest. Keep the animal long enough that you’re sure a healthy animal is used for food.”
Keeping track of antimicrobial treatments isn’t likely to add much time or expense to an operation – especially considering the greater risk to an operation’s reputation if violations do occur, McBeth says.
To this end, some operations have contracted with third party auditors to help evaluate their record-keeping systems. This step helps producers demonstrate they have followed the rules, Sears says.
Third-party auditors are relatively new and are the result of continual improvement efforts by the industry, he says. Instead of relying on internal management at the operation to keep records, an independent auditor helps provide another safeguard for the food supply. It’s just one example of how the industry is addressing both regulations and consumer concerns in order to keep producing healthful food.
Distributor sales representatives can contribute to this shared goal by supporting veterinarians and producers.
“We’re all in this together to produce a safe, wholesome food supply – veterinarians, distributor or sales reps,” Sears notes. “We’re also consuming the very product we’re producing so it’s completely logical that we would join in to make it as safe and wholesome as possible.”
Key Points: 1
- Antibiotics used in beef cattle production must go through a rigorous testing process to ensure human food safety before being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- The Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), a branch of the FDA, is responsible for ensuring that animal drugs are safe, effective and manufactured to quality standards.
- Human safety is a key consideration to the approval of any animal antibiotic.
- Withdrawal times are established as part of the approval process to specify the number of days that must pass between the last antibiotic treatment and before the animal can be marketed. This ensures that an antibiotic has sufficiently cleared an animal’s system.
1 Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association “Antibiotic Use in Cattle Production” fact sheet. September 2009.