The approval and use of antibiotics to treat sick animals and maintain animal health is a science-driven process. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves antibiotics to treat specific diseases or conditions at specific dosage rates, and producers are legally required to follow these precise label directions.
There are four specific efficacy claims, or uses, for which the FDA approves antibiotics for use in food animals: disease treatment, disease prevention, disease control and growth (health maintenance).
The American Veterinary Medical Association, the FDA and international food safety standards body, Codex Alimentarius, all consider treatment, control and prevention as therapeutic uses. Veterinarians and producers use antibiotics to prevent and control the spread of disease when they believe that an existing disease in an animal could rapidly spread to other animals on the farm. They use antibiotics to prevent disease at vulnerable times, like weaning, when animals are very susceptible to disease that can kill them quickly – sometimes in less than 24 hours.
Some advocacy groups define “prevention” as “giving antibiotics to healthy animals.” This definition has no practical merit in veterinary medicine or in scientific and regulatory bodies worldwide. And, from an economic standpoint, cost-conscious producers will not spend time and money administering antibiotics that do not provide benefit.
These therapeutic uses are different than routes of administration. Antibiotics can be given to animals via injection, or administered in feed or water. Feed or water delivery is common when a group of animals require antibiotics. Feed delivery can be used for administering an antibiotic for any of the four efficacy uses – disease treatment, disease prevention, disease control or growth.