Last updated on 11 July 2008
Frequently asked questions about veterinary medicines
Find out all about veterinary medicinces.
Veterinary medicines are chemical or biological substances – or mixtures of these substances – whose purpose is the treatment or prevention of disease in animals. They restore, correct or modify physiological functions by exerting a pharmacological, immunological or metabolic action. Alternatively, some are used for making a medical diagnosis.
Veterinary medicines include sheep dips, flea treatments, wormers, creams and sprays for infected skin or hooves, vaccinations, and substances to control bacterial infections (antibiotics), parasites and fungal diseases.
Strict withdrawal periods are enforced to ensure that any residues of veterinary medicines in food are safe and within legal requirements. In the UK, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) is responsible for the authorisation of veterinary medicines.
Veterinary medicines are used in farming to treat animals that have become unwell, to prevent animals from becoming unwell, or to prevent the spread of disease or parasites. Treatment is usually given under the guidance of a veterinary surgeon, but some medicated feeds and other treatments may be administered by a suitably qualified person or by the farmer. More information is available in guidance documents on veterinary medicine regulation in the UK on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate website.
Some veterinary medicines or treatments are used to treat animals that are unwell. This is called therapeutic treatment. An example would be giving antibiotics to an animal that has an infection to restore its health.
Some veterinary treatments are given to animals that are not ill to prevent illness occurring and spreading. This is called a prophylactic treatment. An example of this would include giving medicated feed additives to poultry at vulnerable times during their life to prevent common infections occurring that can spread very quickly and destroy the flock or ruin their condition.
Another form of treatment is the use of vaccines. Some vaccines are used preventatively and some can be therapeutic. Vaccines enable the animal to develop improved immunity or resistance to specific diseases and thus avoid the need to use veterinary medicines to treat these diseases later in life. Vaccines can also be given to animals to protect consumers. For instance, chickens can be vaccinated against salmonella, thus reducing the chance of consumers being exposed to salmonella in eggs and suffering from food poisoning.
All veterinary treatments – whether therapeutic, preventative or vaccine – are assessed to ensure that, when used correctly, any residues that might remain in the animal when it is slaughtered or its products such as milk/eggs, do not present a risk to consumers.
Veterinary medicines are assessed for their safety by independent scientific committees. Studies on the health effects of veterinary medicines are carried out on all veterinary medicines before they are approved for use in the European Union.
The studies are based on internationally accepted guidelines and are assessed by experts. They establish what scientists agree is an acceptable and safe dose to humans from exposure to the substance in food, usually based on a 'no observed adverse effect level' (NOAEL) in animal tests.
Long-term exposures to veterinary medicines in human diets are considered during the safety assessment. The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) is used to estimate the amount of a substance that people can eat every day of their lives without having an appreciable risk to their health, and is based on current scientific evidence. Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) are set for different animal food products to ensure that it is unlikely a consumer’s diet would expose them to more than the ADI.
Veterinary medicines are regulated to make sure they don't present unacceptable risks to the public, to the people who administer them, to the environment, or to the animals themselves. They are also tested to ensure that they are effective treatments.
A company wanting to get a veterinary medicine approved must submit an application containing information on any potential health and environmental risks. This always includes data on the potential of the veterinary medicine to harm people.
In the UK, veterinary medicines are assessed by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD). The VMD can also refer them to an independent scientific committee, the Veterinary Products Committee (VPC), for an opinion. The FSA has input on all matters relating to the safety of food.
The VMD has published guidance on veterinary medicine regulation in the UK. This can be found on the VMD website under ‘General Information’. It is updated annually.
Veterinary medicines can also be authorised for use in all member states of the European Union (EU) via a similar process through the European Commission. In this case, the data is assessed by the Committee for Medicinal Products for Veterinary Use (CVMP) from the European Medicines Agency (EMEA).
Veterinary medicines are also reviewed regularly. If a review highlights any areas of concern, then more data may be sought, or the approval may be modified or withdrawn completely.
You can find further information about specific veterinary medicines on the following websites.
Veterinary medicine residues are the very small amounts of medicines, or their breakdown products, that can remain in foods from treated animals, so making their way into the food chain.
An agreed safety-based limit, called the Maximum Residue Limit (MRL), is calculated for each medicine and animal product that may contain residues of that medicine.
The MRL is the maximum amount of each veterinary medicine that is safely and legally permitted in the animal tissues or products. MRLs take into account the likely amount of a veterinary medicine that a consumer might get from their diet, using the internationally accepted ‘veterinary hypothetical diet’. It assumes that a consumer will eat a certain amount of various animal and fish products each day. More information is available on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate website.
Once approved, veterinary medicine residues in UK food production are monitored through two official monitoring programmes operated by the VMD. Details of these can be found on the VMD website.
Foods are checked for veterinary medicine residues to see that they are within legal limits and that consumer intakes are safe. Some veterinary medicines are banned within the European Union and foods are also tested for the presence of such residues.
The monitoring programmes for UK produce and imported food show that the vast majority of food is safe and that veterinary medicines are being used correctly. Occasionally, residues are found that may be of concern. In these cases, the Agency takes action with local authorities to withdraw food from sale or to prevent it entering the food chain.
Foods can contain different amounts and types of residues, and this can vary from year to year. There are various possible reasons for this – for example, different farming practices around the world, changes in the veterinary products used, and changes in the risks of animal illness that may require the use of medicines.
The results of official monitoring show that the vast majority of food is safe with regards to veterinary medicine residues. Some imported products are checked specifically for residues of veterinary medicines that may be found in some countries but are banned in the EU. Imported warm-water prawns and imported bee products have been the focus of recent checks for residues in the UK. You can find more information on the results of surveillance at the Veterinary Residues Committee’s (VRC) website and the results of recent VRC brand-name surveys.
Hormones occur naturally in humans and animals. They are produced by glands in the body and are carried to particular organs and tissues to produce specific responses – to stimulate development, for example. Some hormones can also be made synthetically.
Hormones can be used as veterinary medicines to treat specific illnesses in animals. They are given in low doses and are carefully controlled to ensure that any remaining residues will not affect the health of consumers. Further information can be found on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) website.
The use of hormones – or Hormonal Growth Promoters (HGPs) – such as steroids for growth promotion of food-producing animals is banned in the EU.
Other countries, including the US, allow the use of HGPs for growth promotion. Meat from animals that have been treated with HGPs for growth promotion cannot be imported into the EU.
HGPs were banned in the EU in 1999 on the advice of the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures relating to Public Health (SCVPH).
In April 2002, SCVPH published a review of its opinions, following the completion of 17 new studies initiated by the European Commission and carried out by member states. The results of these studies did not change the opinion of the European Commission about the potential risks posed from the use of growth promoting hormones.
The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) was asked by the European Commission to look at new scientific data (2002 to early 2007) that covers veterinary products with growth promoting hormonal activity – specifically, those products that can be legally used for promoting growth in beef production in countries outside the EU. Based on the new data alone, CONTAM has not recommended a review of the previous assessments of the SCVPH. Further information can be found on the VMD’s website.
In 2002, the UK’s independent Veterinary Products Committee (VPC) considered HGPs. The VPC report was published in 2006.
Are food-producing animals given growth promoting treatments?
There are several types of veterinary treatments that can have a growth-promoting effect if administered to animals for that purpose.
- hormonal growth promoters (HGPs), sometimes referred to as ‘hormones’
- antibiotic growth promoters
The use of antibiotic growth-promoting feed additives has been phased out in the EU – this was completed in January 2006 because of concerns about the potential spread of antibiotic resistance. Further information can be found on the VMD’s website.
The use of HGPs and beta-agonists for growth promotion is banned in the EU. This includes a ban on steroids for increasing the growth rate of animals.
Feed additives are added to animal feed during the manufacturing process. They are added for specific reasons. For example, some stop the feed from spoiling. Others, such as vitamins, add to the nutritional value of the feed.
Medicated feed additives are used to prevent disease from occurring in animals. This includes some coccidiostats, which are mainly used to prevent protozoal gut infections in farmed animals, particularly poultry.
Although feed additives are not currently legally classified as veterinary medicines, they are also strictly controlled and are assessed for safety by the EU. They are assessed by the panel on additives and products or substances used in animal feed (FEEDAP) of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the authorisations are voted for by all member states at the EU Standing Committee.
Yes. When an animal is sick it is sometimes treated with antibiotics. Vets use antibiotics to treat certain illnesses in animals in the same way that a doctor may use them to treat people. Sometimes antibiotics may be used to prevent animals from getting sick.
All veterinary treatments, including antibiotics, are assessed to ensure that, when they are used correctly, any residues that might remain in the animal when it is slaughtered or in milk/eggs do not present a risk to consumers.
It is conceivable that very small numbers of particularly sensitive, ‘pre-sensitised’ individuals could occasionally experience mild symptoms (such as a skin rash) if exposed to otherwise safe and legal levels of certain antibiotic residues in food. The large majority of people who are ‘pre-sensitised’ to the antibiotics would not be expected to suffer any reactions.
Veterinary medicines are used for the welfare of animals and so it is possible to encounter them in any animal product – including occasional cases in organically-reared animals. To be sure of avoiding all veterinary medicine residues completely it would be necessary to avoid all animal food products.
Veterinary products are assessed to ensure that any residues in food are safe for consumers. Where there is an occasional finding of a residue that may present a potential risk to consumers, action is taken to remove food from sale and to prevent a re-occurrence of the problem.
Eating meat, eggs, fish, milk and dairy products can form part of a balanced diet with only a slight possibility of exposure to residues.
The effects of cooking on veterinary medicine residue levels in food is likely to be different depending on the substance, food type and cooking method, though we do not have conclusive information of the effects of cooking on veterinary medicine residues in food.
Farming practices in other parts of the world can be different from those found in the EU and, occasionally, problems with residues do occur. However, food imported into the EU must meet EU standards.
All third countries (non-EU) must submit veterinary residues monitoring plans to the EU Commission for the animal food commodities that they wish to export to the EU. The EU Commission must be satisfied that the third country is able to meet EU requirements. These veterinary residues monitoring plans must be approved by the EU Commission and its member states before the animal food commodity may be legally imported to the EU from the third country.
Thus, imports should not contain unauthorised or banned substances, or authorised medicines above their Maximum Residue Limit. If food from a particular country is found to have a persistent problem, the EU Commission can enforce comprehensive testing of consignments or even put in place a ban. The Food and Veterinary Office of the EU Commission visits countries around the world to assess how well they comply with EU standards. It also provides advice to countries to help them do so.
In the UK, if surveillance finds residues in food that do not meet EU requirements then the FSA takes action to protect consumers and informs the EU Commission and the other EU member states via the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). DEFRA’s Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) will then write to his or her counterpart in the country where the food originated to let them know of the problem.
You can find further information on the results of national surveillance at the Veterinary Residues Committee's (VRC) website and of recent VRC brand name surveys.
Over a lifetime, people will be exposed to many veterinary medicines and similar substances through their food, water and environment. Foods can contain a mixture of veterinary medicines, and people may eat foods containing different veterinary medicines and similar substances at the same time.
Some people are concerned that being exposed to such a mixture of substances may harm people's health in a way that current risk assessments do not take account of.
The Working Group for the Risk Assessment of Mixtures of Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines (WiGRAMP) published a report in October 2002 that concluded that the risk to people's health from mixtures of residues is likely to be small. It also said that children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are unlikely to be more affected by the 'cocktail effect' than most other people.
The report identified areas of work for further investigation and made several recommendations. The Agency has published an action plan to carry forward these recommendations and has set up a research programme to look into the issue. See the section on Mixtures of Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines for more information.
The FSA is in favour of a precautionary approach. The FSA does not have any consumer safety concerns about the current limited use of these hormonal growth promoters for therapeutic reasons, if under strict veterinary control.
Both the FSA and VPC have concluded that there is ‘no scientific justification’ for adopting a generic ban on all six growth promoting hormones. However, should there be any prospect of the generic ban being lifted, the FSA would advocate a case-by-case risk assessment of each hormone before it could be granted authorisation.