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How is the use of antibiotics controlled in farming?

First published 21 February 2011, revised 3 March 2011.

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections in animals and humans. They are a powerful modern medical tool many of us take for granted. But their use needs continued careful management. Firstly, there are a limited number of antibiotics with very few new ones being developed and any use, but especially indiscriminate use, can select bacteria that are resistant to them. Secondly, it is possible for antibiotic resistant bacteria to be transferred from animals to humans through contact with animal products and vice versa.  Indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animals and humans could mean a loss of valuable antibiotics for future use. The concern is that significant infections in humans and animals could become untreatable.

Because of these concerns, antibiotics are carefully controlled both in human and veterinary medicine and with controls over their importation, registration and use. As the Australian national regulator of pesticides and veterinary medicines, the APVMA must rigorously assess animal antibiotics proposed for sale in Australia and determine how they can be used prudently.

In making regulatory decisions, the APVMA is guided by a raft of national and international conventions and protocols. This guidance seeks to protect those antibiotics that are critically important for human use and which are threatened by resistance resulting from non-human use, and to suggest antibiotics that should be restricted to animal use. The APVMA also receives specialist scientific advice relating to antibiotics and antibiotic resistance from its Veterinary Medicines Expert Advisory Panel.

Following this lead, at an operational level the APVMA requires a range of information from those proposing to supply antibiotics to the Australian market. The APVMA assesses this data and makes a decision about the safety and effectiveness of the product and how it can be used safely. Only those antibiotic products approved by the APVMA can be supplied in Australia. The fluoroquinolone family of antibiotics that is crucially important in human medicine, for example, is not registered for use in food producing animals in Australia even though the fluoroquinolones are approved for such use in Europe and the United States of America. Australia has chosen to take a more conservative approach with the support of veterinary and scientific bodies.

So how are antibiotics used in animals in Australia? Antibiotics are administered to animals in three main contexts:
  1. They are used in a therapeutic sense under the direction of a veterinarian to treat individual animals that display evidence of infection. A common example may be a cow with mastitis or a sheep with foot abscess.
  2. They are also administered to healthy animals where the veterinarian believes the animals are at risk of developing an infection. This may happen, for example, when healthy animals are in contact with other animals that are known to be infected. Healthy animals may also be treated if they are considered at risk of infection because they are housed in close proximity or due to stress of transportation or adverse weather conditions.
  3. In addition, particular antibiotics can be used in feed or water in low concentrations to increase the efficiency of feed conversion resulting in increased body weight gain, or to prevent disease. Antibiotics approved for this use are generally those that are considered low risk to human health and are generally used without veterinary intervention.

There are a number of programs administered by various authorities that monitor the use and effectiveness of antibiotic control strategies. Veterinarians, as the prescribing professionals, play a key role in ensuring prudent use of antibiotics consistent with guidelines developed by the Australian Veterinary Association. Farmers participate in various on-farm programs that require them to declare the veterinary treatments their livestock have received. Food safety issues are monitored by various commercial bodies plus State and Commonwealth Government agencies through the application and monitoring of maximum residue limits. The APVMA also administers the Adverse Experience Reporting Program that allows the APVMA to monitor the performance of veterinary medicines including antibiotics.

Australia’s rigorous approach to controlling the amounts and types of antibiotics used in food animal industries has led to lower levels of resistance than those found in many other countries. Recent surveys, for example, have not only demonstrated a very low frequency of antibiotics detected in food but have found that resistance to critically important human antibiotics is non-existent or very low. Scientific opinion, however, indicates that this status is fragile and will require ongoing vigilance, surveillance and commitment to maintain.

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Last updated on 28 July, 2011
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