Antimicrobial stewardship

Antimicrobial stewardship

The term 'antimicrobial' refers to medicines that act to selectively kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms like bacteria in humans and animals. Antimicrobials are one of many vital tools available in the Australian cattle industry that help ensure the health and welfare of animals in our care.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when a disease-causing microorganism becomes resistant to antimicrobial medicines used as treatment. AMR is a growing concern for both medical and livestock policy-makers, medical professionals, veterinarians, producers and the wider community, and is recognised as a global health priority. These concerns, along with fewer antimicrobials being discovered, means the effectiveness of antimicrobials currently available must be preserved.

Australia has one of the most conservative approaches to antimicrobial use in the world, and is a world leader in minimising the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals.

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority’s (APVMA) conservative approach to the registration of antimicrobial agents, combined with farm management practices, has resulted in very low levels of AMR in Australian cattle. Nevertheless, it remains paramount to ensure antimicrobials are preserved for future use.

Responsible antimicrobial stewardship aligns with RMAC's Red Meat 2030 priority to "set the standard for world class animal health, welfare, biosecurity and production practices".

Industry position

The appropriate use of antimicrobials is a shared responsibility between the prescribing vet and farm or feedlot managers. The veterinarian accepts responsibility for the decision to use an antimicrobial agent. The farm or feedlot managers and staff are responsible for good animal care practices (including infection control and prevention), following all directions for use, and implementing management changes over time. This approach safeguards the health and welfare of the animals, while minimising the likelihood of adverse impacts on individual animals, other livestock, or on public health due to bacterial disease or treatment involving antimicrobials.

What the data is telling us


In 2018 the Australian Lot Feeders’ Association voluntarily established the Antimicrobial Stewardship Guidelines. Following the release of the guidelines there has been increasing uptake, with an initial 39% of the industry feedlots implementing antimicrobial stewardship plan in the first year. This year, this number has risen to 59%, a very positive indication that the guidelines are taking effect within the industry. This figure has been verified through several hundred independent audits.

Antimicrobial surveillance

This year’s report has removed the antimicrobial surveillance program, noting this reflected an ongoing activity, rather than a measure. Previous AMR testing has not identified any resistance in critically important or highly important antimicrobials such as tigecycline, daptomycin, vancomycin, third generation cephalosporins and linezolid.

The research found that the cattle industry’s low levels of antimicrobial resistance can be attributed to comprehensive controls around antimicrobial use. Continued monitoring of the effects of all antimicrobial use is necessary to support Australia’s reputation as a supplier of safe and healthy food.

In 2020, the Australian Government released a new national antimicrobial resistance strategy, following industry consultation in 2019. This will replace the first National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy (2015-2019) that expired on 31 December 2019. It aimed to minimise the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance, and ensure the continued availability of effective antimicrobials. The new strategy will cover a 20 year period and will expand its focus to include the environment, food and other antimicrobials.42 The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s National Residue Survey (NRS) monitors the residue of antimicrobials in animal products. The 2018-2019 results found 99.9% compliance across 4,877 random cattle samples. This very high rate of compliance has been maintained, or bettered, every year for 10 years.

Snapshot of activity

There are a range of activities targeting antimicrobial resistance across the value chain.

Vigilant vets

The Australian Veterinary Association, the professional body for veterinarians, is producing antibiotic prescribing guidelines for both grass-fed and feedlot cattle, which should be completed in early 2021. The guidelines will outline when antimicrobials should be used, and which ones are most appropriate. Nearly all antimicrobials used in animals must be prescribed by a vet, so these guidelines serve an important role in helping vets prescribe antimicrobials judiciously.

Feedlot leadership

The release of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Guidelines by MLA and ALFA established a framework for antimicrobial stewardship best practice in feedlots, and serve as a framework for continuous improvement. MLA and ALFA also offer a training course in antimicrobial stewardship that aims to help feedlot managers implement antimicrobial stewardship plans.

Trusted traceability systems

The National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) ensures traceability of cattle throughout their lives, and can be used to identify other livestock they may have come into contact with. This includes when an animal arrives at, and is dispatched from, a feedlot. This program is critical to maintaining identity and antimicrobial treatment records on individuals in the feedlot, ensuring correct administration of antimicrobials and that export slaughter intervals and withholding period requirements are met.

Prudent regulation and oversight

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) approves all antimicrobials for use in beef cattle. All antimicrobials undergo a rigorous pre-approval process under which the safety to animals, humans and environment is assessed, and residues in edible beef products are monitored. The APVMA publishes withholding periods for all antimicrobials and maintains a list of export slaughter intervals for products used in cattle.

The National Residue Survey (NRS) conducted by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources randomly samples beef products at Australian abattoirs for antimicrobial residues. Over the last decade, compliance in the cattle program has been high (99.9–100%).