How can the feed industry meet the challenge of “raised without” demands?

Necessary evolution or prescription for trouble?

Whatever one’s perspective on the rising crackdown on antibiotics use in the livestock industry, one thing clear is that a wave of change is not just on the way – it’s here on the doorstep RIGHT NOW.

What’s been brewing and bubbling has boiled over – with major implications for everyone in the feed business, from feed suppliers to individual operations. In the broad food industry, the big brands have felt the pressure and responded by dictating tough new terms for the supply chain. Large dominoes are falling.

Waiting for other ‘shoes’ to drop

In just the past summer, Tyson Foods, the No. 1 U.S. meatpacker, announced plans to eliminate the use of “human antibiotics” from its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017. This follows McDonald’s announcement earlier this year that it would stop buying chickens given antibiotics over next two years.

Walmart also chimed in, by reinforcing and updating its statements in support of reduced use and “raised without antibiotics” approaches. Then Perdue Farms Inc. upped the ante even more, saying:

For consumers who want chickens raised with no antibiotics of any kind, and want that choice now, we are committed to offering consumers the clarity, transparency and assurance that only comes from ‘No Antibiotics Ever.

This flurry of moves is no doubt just a starting point and it seems only a matter of a short time before other major food industry players and brands follow suit – the latest wave of change in an ongoing global shift toward curbing antibiotics use in livestock feeding that has clearly shifted to the fast lane.

At a government level, this trend has included a series of major actions by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S., as part of a strategy to phase out agricultural use of “medically important” antimicrobials. Canada too has jumped in with both feet, with similar targets. It is anticipated that by the end of 2016 antimicrobials used in human medicine will no longer be permitted for growth promotion purposes in agriculture, and the label claims for growth promotion will be removed.

(In the U.S. this timeline is now official, with the FDA recently issuing the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) final rule on antibiotic use.)

What this means for livestock feeding

There is no shortage of myth, misconception and controversy in the mix of argument and rhetoric surrounding these developments. Many in agriculture, for example, would take issue with the false perception that antimicrobials for livestock are often used indiscriminately or in an unstructured way.

Many of those targeting agriculture also overlook the role of prescribed withdrawl times, which are designed to ensure that no livestock product, whether it be, meat, milk or eggs, contains antimicrobials. While there is virtually no dispute anymore that antimicrobial resistance is real and agricultural use is a factor, the extent of its contribution is hard to pinpoint and many feel has been overblown.

But that doesn’t change what appears to be the writing on the wall – the toolbox of antimicrobial options for livestock will shrink and face increasing restriction and regulation. That means new strategies less dependent on antimicrobials are imperative.

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Where will “Plan B” come from?

A first concern for livestock industries is upholding animal health. The hope is that, in the rush to crackdown on antimicrobial use, there is not undue limiting of the needed therapeutic use of these tools to treat, control or prevent specific disease.

The veterinary community in both Canada and U.S. has taken steps to help industry get ahead of this issue, by emphasizing the importance of ways to reduce the dependence antimicrobials, not only to prevent resistance relevant to human health but to maintain their effectiveness for animal use.

Top of the list is to ensure regular vaccinations. “Disease prevention is the most effective way we can control our dependence on antimicrobials,” says the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association in a recent statement on the issue. “Regular vaccinations protect the health of individual animals as well as their whole herd.” Additional management keys include providing proper housing with adequate ventilation, improving sanitation and animal welfare through the husbandry process. Also, hand-in-hand with these types of measures, working closely with consulting veterinarians to ensure early recognition and communication of disease threats as part of overall disease prevention protocols.

Finding new ways to performance

A second key concern is how to replace the additional role some antimicrobials have played in supporting important production needs such as growth promotion and feed efficiency. This in many ways is the “elephant in the room” in the antimicrobial resistance issue and seems now clearly set on a downward spiral.

Livestock producers in North America are currently still able to use some antimicrobials without a veterinary prescription, however this allowance is rapidly tightening. In Canada, for example, Health Canada and the Veterinary Drugs Directorate are reviewing options to require increased veterinary oversight.

In a recent telephone town hall, hosted by Alberta Pork, Dr. Leigh Rosengren, a veterinarian and consultant with Rosengren Epidemiological Consulting, addressed this issue. The bottom line, from her perspective? “You will need to have a sit-down discussion with your veterinarian or your nutritionist to discuss if there are other things you can be doing with your feed to get your performance.”

Therapeutic use will face pressure to make sure it is warranted, judicious use, she says. But use solely for other production benefits is unlikely to survive in the new environment. That means a shift to alternatives is critical to avoid production losses.

Alternative options on the rise

A positive backdrop to these trends and concerns is the continued advancement of new tools that are not antimicrobials but can serve a similar role in supporting efficient and profitable production.

Leading examples are feed enzyme technology and innovative synthetics such as nucleotides. Enzymes have come a long way, including with advances such as multi-carbohydrase options that help operations get far more nutrition value out of feed. Nucleotides are an example of technologies that can support health benefits in addition to strong feed efficiency and growth promotion advantages.

“There is no silver bullet but the good news is industry and producers have more options today than ever before, including options that can help reduce over-reliance on antimicrobials,” says says Rob Patterson, Technical Director with Canadian Bio-Systems Inc, a company that has pioneered several of these options.

“The way industry trends are taking shape, it seems that more restricted and judicious use of antimicrobials will be the order of the day, but by the same token with the advances in alternative options the industry does have options ways to manage effectively. And more and better options will continue to come on stream.

“There is a new thinking taking hold. There will be a higher requirement to become more sophisticated in looking at options and updating strategies, but for early adopters the upside is a stronger – more stable and sustainable – positioning for the future that fits what the marketplace is asking for.”