Recent federal restrictions on using antibiotics in livestock are not likely to affect meat-producing farmers in Centre County, experts said, but the changes worry other producers in the state.
In December, the Food and Drug Administration announced a new policy to phase out the widespread use of certain antibiotics in cows, pigs and poultry raised for meat.
According to the FDA, the broad use of antibiotics in feed and drinking water to help animals gain weight faster has led to the decreased effectiveness of these antibiotics in treating human illnesses.
Dave Wolfgang, Penn State field studies director and extension veterinarian, said Centre County does not have the kinds of farms the restrictions are targeting. However, cattle farmer Paul Slayton, of Slayton’s Bear Dance Farm in Bedford County, said the restrictions will affect the way he keeps his cattle healthy.
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“We will not be able to use medication as top dressing on feed for our cattle that are in high stress or for our calves that are transitioning off of weaning,” Slayton said.
Slayton, who owns a 350-acre farm with 50 cows, uses the antibiotics when a disease or other health problem is imminent. Now he will be restricted in how he adds the drugs to the feed or water.
“There is no conclusive evidence that the use of antibiotics on the farm affects human health,” Slayton said. “They are not even used on humans. Most of the use of antibiotics is for health purposes rather than performance enhancements. It’s the use of antibiotics to keep our pigs and cows healthy that is the big concern.”
Pennsylvania may be less affected than other agricultural states. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, it ranked 17th in poultry, 11th in turkeys and 19th in the number of cattle and calves.
“For a while, about 13 percent of antibiotics sold were used for ... growth promotion, which is not the case anymore,” Wolfgang said. “Now they are used more at the subtherapeutic level — to control the spread of disease.”
Previously, if farmers wanted antibiotics to prevent disease, the drugs could be bought over the counter at the local feed store. Now, a veterinarian has to prescribe the antibiotics and closely monitor the livestock, Wolfgang said.
Veterinarians will prescribe the antibiotics only if they think that a small group of livestock is sick and the spread of disease needs to be prevented, Wolfgang said.
Michael Hulet, associate professor of poultry science at Penn State, said he thinks that regulation of the antibiotics is going to reduce the ability to produce healthy birds since it reduces the tools available for farmers and veterinarians for their animals’ health.
“We find that the use of antibiotics can sometimes improve the health of the product in Pennsylvania,” Hulet said.
Slayton said there is another factor to consider.
“Veterinarians in rural Pennsylvania, but also in America, are hard to come by. There is not a good distribution,” he said. “If your livestock are stressed and need antibiotics, it could be two hours before they arrive. You cannot get them in a timely matter.”
Health officials have long argued that the overuse of these medicines is why their effectiveness on humans has been waning. However, Wolfgang said he thinks there is a bigger problem.
“The big elephant in the room is the overuse of antibiotics around the world. We have lots of problems in the ICUs (intensive care units), and the overuse of antibiotics over a long period of time is what is leading to our resistance,” he said.
Hulet said he thinks the overuse of antibiotics in humans and in pet medicines needs to be examined, because the agricultural industry already is being responsible with the use of the drugs.
Wolfgang said he thinks the new restrictions are not going to solve the problem but are a step in the right direction.
It is more about the “judicious and prudent” use of antibiotics in livestock, he said. What is most important is better management and better feeding of livestock; treating animals when they are not sick is not the best way to go, he said.
“All the industries all over the state want the option to use the antibiotics, and they may not use them all the time,” Wolfgang said. “But what people are not understanding is by the time the animal makes it to our table the antibiotics that may have been used are no longer present.”
York Ag Products President Rich Roenigk said in an email that, even though it has not gained traction in the past, he is most concerned about the General Assembly passing a bill banning the use of the antibiotics, thus putting the state at a competitive disadvantage.
Wolfgang said he thinks such legislation could put Pennsylvania at a disadvantage but that, at this point, the focus should be on “harmonizing” regulations in the state to match national standards and to be competitive with the rest of the industry.