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The Veterinary Feed Directive

Volume 5 Issue 7

Drs. Susan Kerr and Amber Itle, WSU Extension and WA State Dept. of Agriculture

Everybody take a deep breath and calm down. The Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) that will take effect on December 31, 2016 is not going to outlaw the use of antibiotics in livestock, prevent treatment of sick animals, or even require a prescription for every use of antibiotics in food animals. However, it will affect producers who need to feed antibiotics to livestock in feed or water for disease prevention, control, or treatment purposes. It will also eliminate the current legal use of low-level antibiotics for growth promotion purposes.

What Is the Purpose of the VFD?

Why all the buzz about the VFD? Studies from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate antimicrobial resistance (the ability of microscopic disease-causing agents to resist the effects of medications) causes two million human illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S. annually.1 Of particular concern are “medically important medications,” which are used in both humans and food animals. To preserve the effectiveness of these medications in humans, their use in animal feed and water will now be regulated through the provisions of the VFD program and their use for production purposes (growth enhancement or improved feed efficiency) will be prohibited.

Text box about medications used in animal feed and water

Concerns about Medication Resistance

Whenever antimicrobials are used in humans or animals, there is natural selection for organisms that can resist the drug’s effects. If antimicrobials are used incorrectly, such as at too low a dose or for too short a time, the likelihood that some organisms persist after treatment increases. The concern is about the development of drug-resistant disease-causing organisms as well as the potential transmission of these organisms from animals to humans and vice versa.

It’s the Bugs, Not the Drugs

Instead of drug-resistant organisms, some people mistakenly believe the concern is about antimicrobial medications in food animal products, but it is not; USDA, FDA and commercial market regulations prevent this.

For example, a sample is taken from the milk storage tank on every commercial dairy when the milk is picked up and taken to the processing plant, where it is tested for the presence of antibiotics. If the antibiotic test is positive, that dairy’s milk is rejected and the dairy farmer is financially responsible for any additional milk contaminated by mixing with the adulterated milk. Just like people, some sick animals need antibiotics to treat disease and minimize pain and suffering. Producers know to follow the recommended meat and milk withholding times until antimicrobial levels are no longer detectable in food products from treated animals—they are protecting the public and their wallet.

Text box about antimicrobials

The Process

A VFD is a written statement issued by a licensed veterinarian authorizing use of a VFD drug or drugs. If you need to administer medically-important medications to food animals in feed or water, you’ll need a VFD. The process begins with establishing a valid Veterinary-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR). This includes an initial farm visit from a local licensed veterinarian and a once or twice annual visit thereafter. The veterinarian must have full understanding of each farm’s operation, including the type, number, use, management, and health of animals. The veterinarian will write and retain the original VFD that specifies the antibiotic, dose, disease being treated, animal(s) being treated, and VFD expiration date. The veterinarian or producer sends a copy of the VFD to the feed distributor providing the medicated feed. The feed distributor will submit a one-time letter of intent to manufacture or distribute a VFD drug and contact the medication manufacturer to complete the communication chain. A blank VFD provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is provided at the end of this article for educational purposes.

Dr. Mike Apley, Kansas State University Professor of Production Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology, says “Although by weight animal use of antibiotics far surpasses humans, only approximately 20% of the antibiotic resistance that impacts humans can be traced to animal use. In 2007, only 13% of total drugs were used to enhance productivity in animals, while 87% were used to target an identified pathogen” (i.e. treat specific diseases).

Getting Specific

The VFD DOES NOT affect these non-medically important medications and production use to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency is still allowed:

  • Ionophores
  • Polypeptides
  • Carbadox
  • Bambermycin
  • Pleuromutilin

The VFD DOES affect these medically-important medications and production use to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency is no longer allowed:

  • Penicillins
  • Cephalosporins
  • Quinolones
  • Fluoroquinolones
  • Tetracyclines
  • Macrolides
  • Sulfas
  • Glycopeptides
  • Other medications

Any of the above medications, whether deemed medically important or not, can still be used in animals with veterinary supervision in the following situations:

  1. To treat animals diagnosed with an illness.
  2. To control the spread of illness in a group of animals.
  3. To prevent illness in healthy animals when exposure is likely.

Feed and medication manufacturers are in the process of revising labels to remove the current legal use for growth promotion claims and withdrawing some products from over-the-counter access; these latter products will require a written directive from a producer’s veterinarian for legal use in food animal feed or water for disease treatment, control, or prevention.


The purpose of these new regulations is to control the development of drug resistant organisms by decreasing antimicrobial use. The VFD eliminates the use of medically-important antibiotics for growth promotion and production in livestock and poultry, but these medications will still be available for use for prevention, treatment, and control of disease under the supervision of a veterinarian. A veterinarian will have to write a VFD whenever medications are to be administered in feed or water.

The VFD is the national regulatory response to citizen’s concerns about antimicrobial resistance. The discovery and development of new antimicrobial medications is declining, so we must work to preserve the effectiveness of the antibiotics we have. One such step will be to reduce the overall use of antibiotics in food animals and unnecessary use in humans. It will be more important than ever for livestock producers to work with veterinarians and prevent disease through management practices such as vaccinations, sanitation, excellent nutrition, and stress reduction

1. National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria March 2015 (PDF)

Related Information

Example of a veterinary feed directive

Example of a VFD, courtesy of the AVMA.