Q&A: How EU drug rules could affect beef and dairy farmers

Draft EU legislation looks likely to make reporting of on-farm antibiotic use mandatory. What does this mean for cattle farmers and how would it work?

Brian Lindsay from the Cattle Health and Welfare Group (CHAWG) and Liz Redmond from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) answer some key questions

What changes to medicine reporting are expected for cattle farmers?

The EU is taking action to slow the development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics.

The draft Regulation on Veterinary Medicinal Products is currently being negotiated in Europe, but is some years away from adoption and implementation.

Efforts are being made at EU level to develop methods for data collection that can be applied in all member states.

A protocol for data collection in pigs was developed last year, and the EU plans to develop approaches for broiler chickens in 2016 and for cattle in 2017.

When data collection becomes an EU legal requirement, the UK must be in a position to provide that data. At this point there will need to be a mechanism for collecting data on antibiotic use across the UK livestock sectors.

See also: Cattle farms urged to get ahead of potential EU antibiotics law

Farmers and vets already have to record medicine use, so how will this differ?

Under current legislation, cattle farmers are required to maintain accurate records of their use of medicines, including antibiotics. Vets must also maintain accurate records of the medicines they have prescribed for use on farms.

The challenge, therefore, is how to collect these records in a centralised place for national-level collation.

The UK government is encouraging the livestock sectors to develop their own systems for data collection so that a voluntary approach could be taken in future for the provision of UK data to the EU.

It is preferable that the livestock sectors develop methods that are suited to their unique structure and culture.

See also: ‘Disturbing’ antibiotic resistance found in Chinese pigs

Why is this taking place?

Growing concern worldwide about the development of antibiotic resistance has led to increased focus on how these vital medicines are used in animals and people.

One way to help to preserve antibiotics is to stay alert to when and how we use these medicines, to monitor and measure what we are doing, and to watch for emerging resistance.

Responsible use of antibiotics on farms means using antibiotics as little as possible and as much as necessary.

But to know if we are doing this, we need to be able to measure what we are doing.

When could we expect to see changes coming in?

This regulation is some way off adoption and implementation – probably several years. However, it is in the interests of all of the livestock sectors to start preparing now for what is ahead.

What should farmers be doing now to prepare for this?

Antibiotics or antimicrobials?

  • An antimicrobial is capable of destroying or inhibiting the growth of a microbe, including bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa.
  • An antibiotic is a substance capable of destroying or inhibiting the growth of bacteria (antibacterial).
  • The main focus of interest is on antibiotics (antibacterials), this class of antimicrobial medicine where there is the greatest concern around emergence of resistance and potential negative public-health effects.

CHAWG is working with the beef and dairy sectors to identify an appropriate method of extracting this information from the farm in an anonymised manner.

The challenge we have is that the vast majority of on-farm medicine-use records are in a paper format.

Computerised records are much easier to manage and export from the farm, and we plan to involve software developers (milking parlour software, farm and health management programs) in our discussions as we identify the best way forward.

It is likely the industry will develop a “scheme” for software developers to implement to ensure programs used on-farm cater to the reporting needs.

Part of the success of any system will be the ability to anonymise and aggregate the medicine-use records that already need to be kept on the farm.

Farmers could choose to stick with their paper-based systems, although ultimately we will need to find a way they can contribute their records in the easiest way possible into the collection and aggregation process.

How will these tools work and are they used in other livestock sectors?

The pig and poultry sectors are already working on systems that are appropriate for their unique circumstances.

The cattle sector intends to learn from their experiences.

The aim is not to duplicate. Recognising that many UK farms are mixed, any alignment of the recording and reporting system will be advantageous.

Could this mean antibiotic use is restricted on my farm in the future?

The objectives for collection of data do not include a restriction of antibiotic use on farms. However, the draft Regulation on Veterinary Medicinal Products does allow the EU Commission the power to draw up lists of classes of antimicrobials to which restrictions might be applied in future.

The draft Medicated Feed Regulation also contains a number of changes that may have a significant effect on current practices, including changes to the length of validity of prescriptions and restrictions on preventative use of medicated feed.

As with the draft Regulation on Veterinary Medicinal Products, this legislation is currently under negotiation in Europe.

Are any other EU countries doing this?

In Sweden, the veterinary prescription and administration of all medicines to production animals is recorded. All medicines for human and animal use must be purchased through pharmacies. This data is captured in a system that has been in place for decades.

In the Netherlands, farm-level antibiotic use in pigs, broilers, dairy cattle and veal is recorded by farmers and vets. In Denmark, antibiotic sales for all species have been reported by pharmacies since 2000.

Other countries, such as Germany, France, Austria and Belgium, are developing national systems.

Will this cost me money?

Although the potential move from paper to electronic records will incur an initial cost, we are confident the analysis and reporting capability of these systems will pay for themselves in terms of time, better-informed decision-making, and a more strategic use of antimicrobials on the farm.