The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program for antibiotic stewardship is rooted in a cattleman’s belief of doing the right thing. The judicious use of antibiotic technologies is no exception to the goal of producing high-quality, wholesome and healthy beef. BQA guidelines are designed to make certain all beef consumers can take pride in what they purchase–and can trust and have confidence in the entire beef industry.
BQA programs have evolved to include best practices around good record-keeping and protecting herd health. Antibiotic stewardship has been a commonsense practice adopted by beef producers since before the start of the BQA program.
Responsible antibiotic use is important to ensure that animal health technologies remain viable for the beef industry. It is key that ranchers develop judicious use protocols so that they never market animals with residues and that cattlemen responsibly treat sick cattle. Marketing beef with antibiotic residues, even unintentionally, is illegal and can result in significant consequences, both legally and financially.
The judicious use of antibiotics not only results in more profits for producers, but it increases consumer confidence. When healthy cattle leave the farm and reach the marketplace, the producer, packer and consumer all benefit. When better quality beef reaches the supermarket, consumers are more confident in the beef they are buying, and this increases beef consumption.
What is Antibiotic Residue?
A residue refers to the presence of veterinary drugs or pesticides in meat. These residues are usually measured in parts per million or parts per billion. The overwhelming majority of meat products contain no residues or residues within the government-prescribed tolerance levels. Veterinary drug tolerances are established by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes tolerances for registered pesticides under the Food Quality Protection Act.
The FDA approves veterinary drugs and the specific dosage rates to treat specific diseases or conditions. Farmers, ranchers and veterinarians are required by law to follow the FDA-approved label to administer the drug appropriately and correctly. Animal health companies must prove that their veterinary drugs are safe and effective for the intended animal patient, much like the drug approval process for human antibiotics. If the intended patient is a food-producing animal, there is an additional requirement to prove that the use of the antibiotic does not present a risk to human health.
The prevention of illegal antibiotic residues is a continuous, coordinated effort between government agencies, veterinarians and livestock producers that begins before the antibiotic is ever used in animals. The drug approval process, on-farm antibiotic use measures and the U.S. National Residue Program are all specifically designed to prevent animal products with illegal drug residues from entering the food supply.
The FDA also sets withdrawal times for all veterinary drugs, including antibiotics. The withdrawal period is the time between the last dose of the antibiotic and the time when
the animal can be safely slaughtered for food, or, with dairy cattle, the milk can be safely consumed. Practically, the withdrawal time is the amount of time required for the drug to be reduced to a safe tolerance level; the withdrawal time depends on the drug, but it typically ranges from zero to 60 days.
USDA Surveillance Testing
The final step in protecting and preventing illegal antibiotic residues from entering the food supply is surveillance testing conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). The agency conducts tests for chemicals, including antibiotics and various other drugs, pesticides and environmental agents, in meat, poultry and egg products destined for human consumption. The surveillance program consists primarily of two tiers of testing: scheduled and inspector generated. Scheduled antibiotic residue testing is pre-planned to provide a large sample across different food animal industries (beef cattle, veal calves, swine, poultry, dairy, etc.) and locations. The development of scheduled sampling plans is a process that proceeds in the following manner:
- Determine which compounds are of food safety concern;
- Use algorithms to rank the selected compounds;
- Pair these compounds with appropriate production classes; and
- Establish the number of samples to be collected.
Inspector generated samples are collected from animal carcasses that show signs of previous disease or medical treatments–animals that may present an above average risk for illegal antibiotic residues. In the rare cases when an illegal drug residue is confirmed, the beef product is considered “adulterated” and is never allowed to enter the food supply. The USDA and FDA then initiate a cooperative effort to investigate the reasons for the illegal use. Depending on the severity of the residue, the intent and history of the violations, the investigation may lead to a variety of outcomes for the animal owner, from a warning letter to injunction to criminal prosecution.
The FSIS Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) program implemented at slaughter facilities identifies the animals most likely to have drug residues. Animals that display lameness, injection site lesions or signs of illness are targeted for testing. If there is any doubt about the potential for drug residues in an animal, they should be withheld from market.
Producers who market animals that test positive for chemical residues more than a single time will be placed on the publicly available USDA FSIS Residue Repeat Violator List.
FSIS maintains a “Repeat Residue Violator List for Use by FSIS Inspection Personnel” that contains the names and addresses of producers who have more than one meat residue violation in a 12-month period in animals presented for slaughter. Specific information about the violation can also be found in this list, including the plant where the violation was determined, the drug residues discovered, and their concentrations and tolerances. Violators listed may have had multiple violations documented in the same processing facility or separate facilities. This list is intended to aid inspectors in discovering residue tolerance violations before they reach consumers. FSIS provides a user guide that explains the information contained in the list.
FSIS also maintains a “Residue Repeat Violator List for Use by Livestock Markets and Establishments” that contains similar information intended to assist plant owners and operators in identifying residue history of livestock suppliers. This second list documents only the source name and address information of repeat violators, so that livestock marketers and buyers may use precaution when marketing and processing animals from listed suppliers.
Download the Tissue Risk Assessment Checklist with Steps to Prevent Volatile Residue