The civility of the event was surprising, considering the guest speaker wanted to take away one of the audience’s most important tools. It would be like the referee of a football game telling one of the teams that they had to play without their star running back. 

For an hour or so, the veterinarians exchanged polite comments with the Food and Drug Administration representative. One person did offer a faint protest, saying the proposed ban on extra-label use of cephalosporin antimicrobials would compromise animal welfare, animal health and the ability of veterinarians to use their scientific training. Another said “it ties our hands and takes away a tool.” But there wasn’t much passion. Many of the veterinarians attending the American Association of Bovine Practitioners meeting in late September didn’t say anything or were simply resigned to losing one of their most valuable tools. 

And, the same sense of resignation occurred earlier this year when several dairy co-ops announced that they would no longer accept milk from cows treated with bovine somatotropin. 

Don’t be resigned to losing your technology. Here are ways that you can be more proactive and keep the product applications you now have.

1. Sort fact from fiction.

Yes, the politics can be overwhelming at times. In the case of cephalosporin, you have the issue of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the impact it could have on human medicine. In the case of bovine somatotropin, there are consumer issues fueled by activist groups and marketers playing on fear rather than fact.

The Food and Drug Administration maintains that its proposed ban on extra-label cephalosporin use is based on science rather than politics. “It really is about microbial resistance,” Steven Vaughn, director of the Office of New Animal Drug Evaluation for the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, told the veterinarians assembled in late September. “We are in a global market,” he added. “We have (bacterial organisms) moving around the world that we have never seen before. It really is about population dynamics — how these bugs emerge and how they move around the world.”

For instance, bacteria that produce the CTX-M enzyme (which may confer antibiotic resistance) have shown up in various parts of the world, including Canada, but haven’t reached the United States yet. In Eastern Europe, it looks like CTX-M-producing bacteria are propagating in those places where cephalosporin is used, Vaughn said.

Here in the United States, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming more common in cattle, Vaughn says. 

Bottom-line: Dr. Vaughn acknowledges there are “a lot of unknowns” on this issue. The FDA doesn’t believe the problem is coming from approved uses of antibiotics, since those products undergo a thorough evaluation when receiving a label claim. But which extra-label use is contributing to the problem is still not known, he says. So, FDA is basing its action on educated guesswork or presumptive science rather than hard science. Yet, that is more than the activist groups can claim. The activist groups appeal to consumers mainly on emotion. 

2. Use products responsibly.

Regarding extra-label use of cephalosporin, veterinarians stand to lose a valuable tool. It is like a trained archer losing one of his sharpest arrows.

Michael Bolton, Michigan veterinarian and immediate past president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, takes the archer analogy a bit further. FDA is going after its only licensed, trained archer, he says, when that veterinarian should, and would, function as an ally in the fight against indiscriminate use of antibiotics. Less laws and more enforcement will better serve the veterinary profession, the dairy industry, the animal and the public health of the consumer, he adds. 

Extra-label use is one of the discretionary acts a veterinarian is trained to do to help the health and well-being of an animal that maybe has a less-common condition (such as pericarditis) that will never justify a label claim, Bolton says.

Roger Saltman, director of cattle veterinary operations for Pfizer Animal Health, adds, “Extra-label use privileges are extended to veterinarians to use pharmaceutical compounds that in their professional judgment are needed to treat animal disease.”

Saltman outlines a straightforward approach for producers:

  • Work with a veterinarian to develop a sensible protocol for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
  • Such protocols will help ensure that pharmaceuticals are used according to their label for approved uses. And, when extra-label use is needed, the veterinarian is there to apply his best professional judgment.
  • After protocols are in place, producers need to keep complete records of how products are being used and should carefully monitor how accurately the protocols are being followed.

“Appropriate use is the key as we go forward,” Saltman says.

Bottom-line: Tell consumers that antibiotics are needed to improve animal health. And, be sure to mention the role of veterinarians, since that will help promote public confidence. 

3. Recognize consumer choice.

Dennis Erpelding, manager of government relations, public affairs and communications for Elanco Animal Health, says we need to acknowledge the needs of three consumer segments:

  • Organic customers. They are very adamant about being “organic-only.” 
  • Those who want a “natural” component to their food. They are interested in how their food is produced, but not quite as adamant as the first group that the food has to be organic. 
  • Conventional consumers who want a safe, nutritious, affordable food supply.

Erpelding says about 12 to 15 percent of consumers, on a worldwide basis, fit into the organic or natural categories. The other 85 percent are conventional consumers.

Let’s recognize these three segments and meet their needs, Erpelding says. Make sure they have information available when they request it, he adds. 

Individual dairy producers can work with their co-ops on this — some of their milk may go to different consumer segments and they need to work out ways, logistically, for this to happen. 

By respecting and serving the different market segments, it becomes less of a “we vs. them” mentality. Likewise, by providing consumers with a choice, “it doesn’t force the other side to be with you or against you,” Erpelding says.

“It’s really a marketing opportunity,” he says. For instance, the organic and natural segments may be willing to pay a premium for the milk they buy.

Bottom-line: The marketplace will usually sort these things out. Look at Europe. Heavy regulation has turned Europe into a meat-deficit region; it must now rely on imports to meet consumers’ needs. Beef supplies in particular have dwindled because of restrictions or outright bans on animal-performance-enhancing products. It has now become a food-security issue. European leaders have recognized — albeit a bit late — that these matters are better handled in the marketplace than the regulatory arena.   

4. Speak up! 

Liz Doornink, co-owner of Jon-De Farm in Baldwin, Wis., understands the importance of connecting with consumers.

“If you get more people to truly understand why we utilize these items on the farm, they are going to feel more comfortable about it,” she says. “That’s our responsibility to get in there and help educate.”

Occasionally, in the grocery store, Doornink will go up to someone if that person is standing in front of the dairy case and appears to be struggling with a decision. She is even more aggressive about going up to dairy-case managers.

“I don’t hesitate to ask any of the dairy-case managers what they know or what they are seeing, because most of the time they get asked these questions and don’t know the answers,” she says.

Whenever she sees a good You Tube video on dairying, she forwards it to friends and family, and then they forward it to their friends and family. Pretty soon, tens if not hundreds of people have seen it. 

Doornink started handing out educational materials to teachers in the local community. Before she knew it, those teachers had told others — and the network extended all the way from Baldwin to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., 40 miles to the west. The educational materials include milk facts, games and puzzles. Doornink has found that Farm Bureau and milk-marketing boards are good sources for these materials, as is an organization she co-chairs — American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT). 

To download materials from AFACT, go to: www.itisafact.org. Another site: dairyfarmingtoday.org.

Bottom-line. Initiate contact with consumers. Try to find common ground. For instance, Doornink tells how she took one of her daughters to the doctor’s office to treat an ear infection. The daughter got antibiotics, and the same principle applies to treating a sick cow. “Why would I be embarrassed to say I am treating a cow with antibiotics through the veterinarian because of an udder infection?” she asks. Consumers relate to the fact that she cares about animals.