Veterinary Feed Directive – Year One in Review

To gain a better understanding of the direct impacts to farmer raising animals for food productions MSU Extension led a nationwide survey to help determine what effect these new rules had across food animal species and across farms on a national level.

What happened on farms as a result of the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) rules? How did farmers, whether they raise cattle, sheep, goats, swine or poultry, respond? What happened to the health of animals? What happened with antibiotic use? What problems and opportunities came about? These were some of the questions to which a team from Michigan State University wanted to learn the answers. In order to discover those results, we asked farmers to respond on a survey in 2018.

In 2016 and 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented new restrictions on how antibiotics can be used in food animal production. The updated Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), which was explained in Guidance Document 209 and 213, took effect January 1, 2017 and it changed how farmers could use antimicrobials that were deemed medically important to human medicine (but used in both human and animal medicine). The changes made focused on a one-health approach, a key aspect of which is that antimicrobial drug use contributes to the emergence of drug resistant organisms and that these important drugs must be used judiciously in both animal and human medicine to slow the development of resistance. The biggest change for farmers was that, when utilizing certain feed-grade medications, farmers would need to follow a process that required them to first seek a directive (VFD) written by a veterinarian with whom the farmer had a valid Veterinary-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR), in order to source antibiotics that would be delivered to the animals through the feed. This process provides a framework for all veterinarians who are involved in issuing these antimicrobials for use, and provides documentation requirements for the farmers using the antimicrobial, veterinarian issuing the VFD and feed mill processing the order.

The VFD regulations had impacts at the farm level, on production practices and management of health. To gain a better understanding of the direct impacts to farmer raising animals for food productions Michigan State University Extension led a nationwide survey to help determine what effect these new rules had across food animal species and across farms on a national level. Farmer input was solicited and responses requested for survey questions that covered five areas: antibiotic use, animal morbidity and mortality, management, relationship with their veterinarian, and economics.

Survey responses were collected from farmers in 48 states and represented beef, dairy, sheep, goats, swine, poultry and other minor species. While data analysis is still ongoing, several consistent themes have emerged after the initial review of the data and responses. One theme is that some unintended economic impacts have occurred on farms because of the new VFD regulations, that is supported by producer comments such as, “The biggest change has been how much I have to pay the vet for treatment of my herd. It has increased the cost for production and for people who actually limited antibiotic usage before the regulation, the treatment has not changed, just the cost.”

Other untended consequences of VFD compliance reported in the survey relate to animal health.  When looking at animal morbidity and mortality some producers indicate that they see more animal sickness, have limitations on the availability of product to treat animals and are frustrated with the timeframe in which it takes them to source these products with VFD regulations, “While the VFD doesn’t majorly affect my practices on a regular basis, it does limit the variety of options available to treat ailments and especially help supporting newborns, which can be frustrating.” Farmers also indicted that sourcing VFD friendly businesses to support their operations can be challenging, stating “My veterinarian refuses to write a VFD. I have no other veterinarians in my area” and “It has been difficult finding feed suppliers in my area who are willing to carry VFD products. I have had to go without or pay much higher prices because of added shipping costs and additional veterinary costs.”

While there are some challenges to the ways that farmers have had to implement the VFD regulations, there are also positive impacts that these changes have created.  For example, it appears that the critical goal of reducing farm use of medically important antibiotics is being achieved, thanks to the commitment of farmers to comply with VFD guidelines.  Findings reported by the FDA indicate that sales and distribution of medically important antibiotics intended for use by livestock (all species combined) declined by 33% between the years 2016 and 2017, and by 43% since 2015.  These results, reported by manufactures/distributors of the products, are consistent with data from the Michigan State University Extension survey results.  Also, overall, the survey results indicate that communication with farm veterinarians and the use of vaccines have increased. This is supported by comments from farmers recorded in Farm Journal which included references saying, “VFD actually has helped us to find more preventive opportunities.”  This finding is highly encouraging, because strengthening the link between farmers and the veterinarians they work with should further improve America’s farmers achieve their objective of protecting antibiotics for future use in humans and animals.

Further work, including data analysis and a determination of areas which may benefit from follow-up will be completed. Using the information gathered, Michigan State University Extension will be able to further support the One Health antimicrobial stewardship approach, by sharing the positive practices put in place in agriculture to protect both human and animal health.

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