The recent news that ivermectin – a drug typically used to treat parasites in livestock – may be used compassionately by humans in the fight against Covid-19 has sparked fears of a possible shortage as well as price hikes of the drug in the agricultural sector.

“A far bigger issue with long-term consequences is the prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock. This not only threatens the health of the herd but also harms the future profitability of the industry,” says Roelie van Reenen, supply chain executive at Beefmaster Group, a leading specialist supplier of beef products to South African and global markets.

Van Reenen cautions industry role-players to guard the crucial economic role of the livestock industry over the long term, and this starts with practising the safe and responsible use of antibiotics.

Ivermectin is not an antibiotic

Ivermectin is a drug – not an antibiotic – the shortage of which may only be a short-term issue. However, if we do not protect the antibiotics that we currently have at our disposal, which are vital in the treatment of many infectious diseases in livestock, we will be left with very few options with which to treat our animals in future. This will have a major impact on our industry,” says Van Reenen, adding that the irresponsible use of antibiotics is rife in the industry.

Beefmaster Group has long been a proponent of judicious antibiotic use in animals. The Group, which works with both established and commercial farmers to access a variety of cattle for its production needs, is firm that it will not accept cattle from farmers who have prophylactically administered antibiotics to calves and weaners.

Furthermore it has a responsible antibiotic use policy at its feedlot in Christiana and works very closely with animal health experts, who share this view to administer medication to its animals. 

Encouragingly the world is waking up to the importance of responsible antibiotic use in beef production. The Financial Times reports that global fast-food chains, Wendy’s and Taco Bell, were among those who established goals for antibiotic reduction in beef production. Other brands in the beef industry have also set out policies to assess and limit the use of antibiotics in their beef supply chain.

But, says Van Reenen, industry role-players back home need to champion the responsible use of antibiotics. 

Call for a change in approach

“We call on the industry to change the approach from using antibiotics as a management tool to prevent illness to only using it under the guidance of a veterinarian who has been trained in terms of knowing what to use and when to treat sick animals,” says Van Reenen.

“This is because the incorrect use of antibiotics causes antibiotic resistance and limits the opportunity for the meat producer to get a quality product from an animal previously treated with antibiotics. It also leads to the development of resistance to that particular group of antibiotics.”

He explains that use of Schedule 4 drugs in the industry is showing an upward trend and will eventually lead to farmers being unable to treat sick cattle once the bacteria develop resistance to these treatments.

“If the bacterial populations in our cattle develop resistance due to the overuse of antibiotics, we won’t be able to treat diseases effectively because it takes many years to develop a safe and effective antibiotic, and there are no new antibiotic developments even in the research phase for use in production animal medicine,” says Van Reenen. “We need a more holistic approach to the use of antibiotics in animals so that it helps to build herd health, not destroy it.”

Farm to Fork programme promotes safe antibiotic use

The Group has developed a programme called Farm to Fork that aims to educate producers about how to create a healthier herd. The programme uses experienced and qualified veterinarians who are passionate about the safe use of antibiotics to help cattle farmers understand the dangers of the excessive use of antibiotics. The programme aims to, among others, make a meaningful contribution towards reducing the potential for antibiotic resistance in cattle in South Africa. 

“We need everyone to understand that having a healthier herd means being able to have a full, traceable history of the animal. We need transparent herd management. This will help farmers produce quality South African beef that will be superior in the long term. This is because these animals will be far more valuable than those that have been over-exposed to antibiotics, which is the key to access more and better global beef markets,” concludes Van Reenen. – Press release, Beef Master Group