Reuters, an international news agency headquartered in London, recently investigated the use of the antibiotic ceftiofur in the U.S. dairy industry, stating that “the frequency at which it’s used improperly in cattle poses a threat to public health.” The article is part of a series investigating superbugs and their connection to antibiotic use in the animal food industry.

The article stated that while ceftiofur itself isn’t a danger to humans, concerns have been raised that its overuse will increase the development of superbugs, which are immune to conventional medical treatment.

The article further reported that while the drug is safe if used according to its label, it has been misused in the dairy industry to keep ill animals alive long enough to be sold to a slaughterhouse, thus increasing the chances an animal with a mutation in its bacteria population might make it into the food supply.

One retired dairy farmer, who had been cited for sending an animal with elevated residue levels to slaughter in the past, was quoted saying that the pressures of maintaining a livelihood in a difficult market creates a temptation to “fudge on it” from time to time.

Click here to read an interview with this dairy farmer on his reaction to the Reuters story.


Reuters also quoted Zoetis, a pharmaceutical maker of ceftiofur for livestock, saying it was aware of the residue violations. The company maintains the violations are small in number, and most – perhaps all – of the animals were pulled from the food supply when residues were found. Zoetis said these animals shouldn’t have gone to slaughter and the proper withdrawal periods weren’t followed.

The article questioned the effectiveness of the USDA’s residue detection program, stating that: “The residue testing program is supposed to help the government ensure that farmers are not misusing the drugs. The regulations contain a gap, however.”

The article stated that because the USDA tests for antibiotic residue and not for resistant bacteria, affected organisms can be present past the withdrawal period, increasing the likelihood of making it into the food supply, according to the article.

A professor from Texas Tech was also quoted, saying that a longer withdrawal period may be warranted to ensure resistant bacteria are reduced in animals before slaughter.

Dr. Roger Saltman, group director for cattle and equine technical services at Zoetis, responded to the article saying he felt it impugned the industry in general.

He pointed out the statistics used in the article were misrepresented and come not from the general sampling used by the USDA to detect residues, but from a pool of animals that inspectors inside slaughterhouses believe are suspect. These animals, he said, don’t make it into the food supply.

Saltman said in a press conference, “I think the article is disappointing as they ended up painting an image of the dairy industry, Zoetis and the U.S. regulatory system that is not really accurate.”

Saltman acknowledged the continuing need to use ceftiofur – and all other antibiotics – responsibly, properly, under the supervision of a veterinarian and according to the label.

“We understand this compound very well and are confident that there won’t be any residues when it is used properly,” Saltman said. “Withdrawal period is determined from a deep dataset which is presented to the FDA and calculated using built-in safety factors. It is a very rigorous process.”

Zoetis reiterated that it has several programs established to help promote responsible use of its products. The website, established in 2011, contains information centered on the correct use of antibiotics in food animals to prevent residues. Another three-year-old campaign called “Join the Cause” provided meetings with veterinarians and producers aimed at decreasing residues.

“To me, the take-home is we all have to re-double our efforts in the dairy industry and before we put the animal on the truck, we need to make sure the withdrawal time is right. We need to look at those animals and ask if we would put them on our own table,” Saltman said.

“If not, then we should not send them. We all have to really pay attention to them, and we can’t be tempted to ‘fudge on it.’ It’s something the industry really can’t accept. We will continue to push the education to ensure these important medicines are used correctly.”

Consumer response to the article has been minimal, according to Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), which monitors traditional and social media reports about the dairy industry.

Scott Wallin, the director of integrated communications for DMI, said, “This story has generated a moderate amount of attention, but it’s not high by any means. It’s also telling that very few news organizations have picked up the Reuters wire story.” PD

Summarized by Progressive Dairyman staff from cited sources