One of the great privileges and pleasures of my job is getting to see the food system at work. Whether it’s a big cereal manufacturer in Minnesota, a small New England produce operator, or, most recently, a Midwest cattle feeding operation, I always learn something new, and I get to meet people who are working hard to put food on our tables.
Last month, I traveled with some FDA colleagues to Kansas at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran to learn about the practicalities of beef production, including how animal drugs are being used and managed. Senator Moran, who goes by “Jerry” back home and clearly enjoys being there, graciously accompanied us the whole day. We had a great experience.
For starters, to paraphrase Dorothy, when you spend a day in Kansas, you know you’re not in Washington any more. It’s partly the famous Midwestern friendliness, which we encountered at every turn as we walked the Kansas State campus, toured the K-State College of Veterinary Medicine, and visited Great Bend Feeding, Inc.
But it’s also the tangible presence of the land itself and people who for generations have built small communities on the foundation of agriculture and food production. These are folks who live and work far from Washington, and who often view Washington skeptically, but with whom we have a common cause in providing Americans the safest possible food supply.
FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) regulates the safety and effectiveness of drugs for both food animals and our pets. When it comes to food animals, this includes ensuring that the meat, milk or eggs do not contain any unsafe drug residues. But it also includes minimizing the risk of antimicrobial resistance, which is a natural biological response to the use of antibiotics, whether in human medicine or in animal production. The public health problem occurs when drugs we rely on to treat human infections are rendered ineffective.
FDA is addressing this problem through an initiative that, by December 2016, will make illegal the use of medically important antibiotics for animal production purposes – such as growth promotion – and bring remaining uses for legitimate animal health purposes under veterinary supervision. CVM’s Dr. Bill Flynn, who is leading this initiative, was my partner on our trip to Kansas.
Kansas is a leading beef producer and our trip gave us an opportunity for us to see first-hand the work being done to manage antibiotic use and the real challenges that exist so that together we can find the most practical and effective ways to ensure that these drugs are used judiciously to protect both animal and human health.
Our first stop was Kansas State University’s prestigious College of Veterinary Medicine in Manhattan. Dean Tammy Beckham joined us at the college, which prides itself on teaching, research and service to the community. We met with about 25 students involved in the care of all kinds of animals, from those found on farms, including horses and cows, to companion animals like dogs and cats. We saw a horse and cow being cared for and watched students examine, with great kindness, a tiny dog in a radiology laboratory using computer imaging technology.
We also visited the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which supports the college’s public role in animal agriculture by examining samples taken from ailing farm animals and helping determine the right treatment. We were joined for the day by Dr. Michael Apley, a professor in the college’s clinical sciences department and a newly appointed member of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. As a researcher and educator who reaches out to the animal production industry, Dr. Apley is at the forefront of efforts to properly manage the use of antimicrobials in food animals.
With Dr. Apley, we drove for more than two hours through the scenic Kansas prairie to reach Great Bend Feeding, a mid-size feed yard with about 30,000 head of cattle. Manager Paul Woydziak is a native of the area and the facility is staffed by local people. This is their life and their livelihood, and they take the issues of food safety and animal health very seriously.
Their job is to optimize the growth of cattle with a custom feeding program, keeping them from 120 to 280 days before they are harvested to enter the food supply. The animals are fed three times a day with feed that is produced in a mill on the property and highly controlled in terms of quality and quantity. Modern day cowboys on horseback constantly patrol the dozens of large pens looking for signs of illness, with potentially sick animals immediately evaluated by a veterinarian.
There are lessons to be learned at farms and feed yards like Great Bend. It is critical that we identify and implement the best “stewardship” practices to ensure that medically important antimicrobials are used judiciously, including for preventing disease in the animals.
And we need solid data to ensure that our strategy to promote judicious use of antimicrobials is working. We were encouraged by the detailed system that was in place at the Great Bend operation for tracking animal health and drug use. Understanding how such information is monitored in actual animal production settings is important to our ongoing discussions about practical strategies for collecting data on antimicrobial use.
So it was a great trip, and we are grateful to Sen. Moran and all of the Kansans who were so generous with their time. Keeping food safe will always involve collaboration between the public and private sectors, and to build that collaboration there is no substitute for being there in person, seeing how our food is produced, and learning from the people who dedicate their lives to that work.
The food safety problem posed by antimicrobial resistance is one that we can solve, working together.