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Veterinary medicines

cow Veterinary medicines are used in farming to treat sick animals or prevent disease in herds or flocks.

Sometimes traces of these medicines can be found in our food. Their use is controlled to make sure they don’t pose a risk to the public, the animals or the environment.

What are veterinary medicines?

Veterinary medicines are given to sick animals in the same way that a doctor gives us a prescription for an illness or infection. Veterinary medicines include sheep dips, flea treatments, wormers, creams and sprays for infected skin or hooves, vaccines and antibiotics.

How do veterinary medicines affect our food?

Very small amounts of veterinary medicines can sometimes get into our food from treated animals, in products such as meat, fish, eggs, honey and milk. These are called residues and are the leftovers from the medicine that the animal has been treated with. Not all animal products have residues and, where they do, they’re usually at very low levels.

To make sure that our food is safe to eat, for many medicines a specific amount of time must pass before treated animals can be slaughtered for their meat or their products, such as milk and eggs, can be collected. This is because the residues can still be there even when the vet has given the animal the right dose. This period of time is called a withdrawal period.

Are residues of veterinary medicines checked?

Yes. Any company that wants to introduce a new veterinary medicine must submit an application containing information on any possible effects on people's health. The company must also provide details about the quality of the veterinary medicine, how useful it is, and whether it is safe for the people who will be treating the animals, the animals themselves and the environment.

Veterinary medicines are assessed in the UK by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, which involves the Agency in the approval process. Veterinary medicines are also authorised for use in the European Union (EU) through the European Medicines Evaluation Authority (EMEA). In this case, the data is assessed by the Committee for Medicinal Products for Veterinary Use (CVMP).

The Agency makes sure that food safety is given top priority during the authorisation and monitoring processes. We recognise that consumers expect that any veterinary medicine residues in food are as low as practically possible and within safe limits.

Every veterinary medicine must be approved before it can be sold or used on animals in the UK. This includes strict testing to make sure it will not be a risk to people eating food from animals treated with the medicine. For food that might contain residue of a particular medicine, an agreed Maximum Residue Limit (MRL), is calculated. MRL is the maximum concentration of a residue that is legally permitted or acceptable in or on a food. Consumer safety is taken into consideration when setting MRLs.

A range of foods are checked regularly by the Government to make sure any residues present are at safe levels. These checks show that in the UK residues of veterinary medicines are rarely found and, where they are, they are almost always at low levels that are not a threat to our health.

If foods are found to have residues over the legal limit recognised by the UK, they're not allowed to be sold. If these foods have already been distributed, the Agency works with the necessary businesses and supermarkets to remove them from sale where possible.

Hormones and feed additives as veterinary medicines

We all have hormones. They exist naturally in animals' bodies and our own. They're made by the glands in our bodies to trigger certain responses – to make us grow, for example. Hormones can also be made synthetically.

The use of hormones such as steroids to make animals grow is banned in the European Union. Some hormonal substances do have limited uses under veterinary supervision to treat certain conditions in animals. They’re given in low doses and are carefully controlled to make sure that any residues will not affect people's health.

Feed additives are added to animal feed when the feed is being made. Some, for example, stop the feed from going off, others, such as vitamins add to the nutritional value of the feed or help animals grow. However, certain medicated feed additives are used in animal feed to treat or prevent disease in animals.

Although feed additives are not legally classed as veterinary medicines, they are also strictly controlled and are assessed for safety by the European Union.

Further information

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate oversees the authorisation and surveillance of veterinary medicines in the UK. You can visit its website, which has more information and links to other useful sites including the Veterinary Residues Committee, and The Veterinary Products Committee.

The European Medicines Agency oversees the authorisation for veterinary medicines on an EU-wide basis. More information can also be found on its website.