Billboards posted around the country by a national restaurant chain boldly proclaim: “Get antibiotics from your doctor, not your beef.” The words are emotional, and the rhetoric is not likely to go away any time soon.

Attention continues to mount on antibiotic use in food-producing animals, and executives in board rooms are listening closely. Negative headlines, editorials and Internet chatrooms feed the frenzy. While consumers may be confused by mixed messages, they demand and deserve safe food.

As a result, an increasing number of respected restaurants and retailers have zeroed in on the public’s concern and have developed their own antibiotic guidelines. Wendy’s, for example, has developed antibiotic use policies. Under “Managed Use,” Wendy’s policy states that “antibiotics used to treat food animals must only be administered by licensed veterinarians that have met all training and certification requirements.”

It’s time for all producers of food animals to take the issue of responsible antibiotic use seriously. Every producer who sends a cow to slaughter should ask themselves a simple question, “Would I serve the beef from that animal on my family’s dinner table?” If the answer is no, then it’s time to stop the truck.

Antibiotic residues: A concern
While the incidence of antibiotic residues in beef cattle has been very low, the incidence of residues in market dairy cows is a concern.


The USDA is responsible for monitoring residues in meat while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will enforce corrective measures when necessary. Two recent cases illustrate some of the consequences that can occur:

1. In August, a Complaint and Consent Decree of Permanent Injunction was filed in U.S. District Court against an Iowa dairyman for illegal drug residue violations in nine cull dairy cows sold between 1992 and 2006. The drug residues found by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service included antibiotics such as tetracycline, sulfadimethoxine, flunixin, oxytetracycline and penicillin.

2. A South Dakota cattle dealer faced sentencing Nov. 8, 2007 on charges of selling cattle with drug levels exceeding FDA tolerance limits. Although the dealer never administered any drugs to cattle himself, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Reinhard contended that it was his responsibility to collect appropriate records of the cattle he bought at auctions and from other sellers in Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota. “There should be a log of each individual animal and the medication they’ve received”, said Reinhard.

The drug violations included sulfas and tilmicosin – antibiotics commonly found on dairies. The case involved four cattle sold between April 22, 2002, and April 2004. The dealer faces up to six months in prison, a fine of $100,000 and one year of probation.

What can you do to keep beef safe?
Healthy animals are the foundation of safe food. Disease prevention is the key to success. However, cows do get sick and antibiotic treatment is sometimes necessary to bring the animal back to good health.

Guidelines for responsible antibiotic use
It takes a team effort to ensure the safety of our food supply. Every time an antibiotic is given to a dairy cow to treat an infection, there are important steps to follow in order to avoid residues in that animal’s meat and milk. Our goals are the following:

• Recognize that antibiotics should be used with caution.
• Look at the label before using.
• Stick to the correct dose and withdrawal time.

Prevent disease
Prevent disease through management by emphasizing animal husbandry, biosecurity, health maintenance and hygiene. Remember that antibiotic use cannot replace sound management practices.

Appropriate and timely management practices include:

• Vaccinations
• Parasite control
• Stress reduction
• Proper nutrition
• Animal husbandry: sanitation, ventilation, cow comfort, animal handling

Identify sick animals
Sick animals indicate a breakdown in preventative herd health practices.

• Identify problems early and accurately.
• Know which diseases are treatable with antibiotics.
• Consult your veterinarian.

Use lab tests to help confirm an infection and determine which drug would be most effective.

Use antibiotics correctly
Talk to your veterinarian. Use laboratory tests to help guide your use of antibiotics and other treatments. Select antibiotics only if you suspect an infection.

Read the label
Follow the label’s directions and remember that using an antibiotic dose that is lower than the label recommendation is always discouraged. Pay careful attention to:

• Treatment dosage (i.e., How much drug per weight of the animal?)

• Route of administration: intravenous (IV), intramuscular (IM), intramammary, subcutaneous (SQ), and (or) oral

• Length of treatment (i.e., How many doses or length of time for treatment?)

• Withdrawal time (i.e., meat and milk hold-outs)

• Develop written treatment protocols (instructions) with your veterinarian. Protocols can act as a way to help you determine whether a cow needs a treatment, and which antibiotic to use.

• Treat the fewest number of animals possible.

• Withhold treated animals or animal products for the recommended length of time.

• If you are unsure of whether a cow has cleared the drug, use a test for meat or milk residues.

• Giving an antibiotic in a different way than is described on the label is an extra-label drug use (see this article’s section on “Understanding Drug Labels.”)

Record keeping

Remember, you cannot manage what you do not measure. A good record system includes the following information:

• Identification of all animals treated individually or by group
• Antibiotic and other medications used
• Dates treated – if more than once, include number of treatments and last day of drug being given
• Dosage (amount) used
• Route and location of administration
• Name of the person who administered the product
• Review treatment records before marketing to ensure proper meat and milk withdrawal times are met
• FDA encourages all people handling food-producing animals to have a record-keeping system in place to ensure that animal drugs are used properly and to prevent drug residues in edible animal products.
• Record keeping and veterinary involvement is required for any extra-label drug use.

Have a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR)
A valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship is required for the use of any prescription drug or any extra-label drug on the farm. It is defined as follows:

1. A veterinarian agrees to be responsible for making decisions about diagnosing and treating animals on the farm, and the client (owner or caretaker of the animal) agrees to follow the veterinarian’s instructions.

2. The veterinarian is familiar enough with the farm to be able to make a diagnosis of medical conditions of the animals on that farm.

3. The practicing veterinarian is available for follow-up in case of a drug reaction or in case the therapy does not work.

In summary, a veterinarian must be familiar with the farm and the animal health practices on that farm. Routine visits and discussions with your veterinarian are key elements in maintaining this relationship. A veterinarian is responsible for deciding to give an extra-label drug and must be able to provide directions for that drug’s use.

Establish written protocols
A written protocol (set of instructions) serves as a guide for on-farm diagnosis and treatment decisions. A complete protocol should include signs of the disease and detailed directions for treatment, including meat and milk withdrawal times. You should establish written protocols for any antibiotic used on your operation. These protocols must include your veterinarian’s input, if prescription drugs are used or if drugs are used other than according to the label (extra-label use).

Understanding drug labels
Drugs for which adequate instructions for safe and effective use by a layperson can be written are designated over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Over-the-counter drugs are okay to use without a veterinarian as long as the label instructions are followed. Using these drugs in a way that differs from the label can only be done by or on the direction of a licensed veterinarian within a valid VCPR.

Drugs for which adequate instructions for use by a layperson cannot be written are designated prescription (Rx) drugs and must be dispensed by or on the written order of a licensed veterinarian within a valid VCPR.

Extra-label use is defined as any use which is not on the FDA-approved label. Extra-label use of OTC drugs is prohibited except by or on the order of a licensed veterinarian with a valid VCPR. Prescription (Rx) use, whether label or extra-label, also requires a valid VCPR.

Only the uses listed on the label are legal. Any other use requires veterinary involvement.

Because approved withdrawal times are based on label directions, any other use may result in a longer withdrawal time, and a residue violation, if not properly extended. PD