Keeping antibiotics out of the food chain

At a sprawling plant along the Indian River in Millsboro, through three shifts on seven days a week, employees at Merck Animal Health manufacture vaccines and other pharmaceutical products for cats, dogs, pigs and cows. But like so much of the agriculture industry here in the First State, Merck’s biggest customer is the poultry industry.

Regina Holzbauer
Regina Holzbauer

“[The plant is] running more or less around the clock,” says Executive Site Director Regina Holzbauer, who has been at the Millsboro location since 2015. “In biological production, things never stop.”

In recent years, the same could be said for the poultry industry at large, as more and more producers go antibiotic-free. Flexibility, Holzbauer explains, is her firm’s biggest challenge and its greatest strength. “You never know what the next challenge is going to be,” she says. “While trying to run a business, you have to also always try to improve how you do things and try to make it better — all while the marketplace is changing rapidly. The whole antibiotic-free movement, which has become quite big in the poultry industry, is driving different demands on what our customers need to treat their animals.”

There are a few ways farmers have traditionally used antibiotics. In one, you treat animals when they get sick and treat other animals in that population as well, to try to stop the spread. In another, you treat all the animals up front. As large producers have moved away from both practices, Merck has shifted its focus, too. Chickens

“One way of dealing with it is to vaccinate them up front and to manage the disease pressure on the population,” Holzbauer says. “So, that requires a different kind of husbandry.” Merck doesn’t just deliver the vaccines — instead, it has people on site with its farmers, helping to find the best times and methods of delivery for the vaccines.

The 300 employees at the Millsboro facility include microbiologists, biologists, animal scientists, chemists, engineers and mechanics. “It’s quite a mix,” Holzbauer notes. “It’s basically all kinds of science majors that we are looking for.”

The company’s newest innovation, already on the market in Europe, is called INNOVAX-ND-IBD. It’s manufactured using a new, biotech process and protects against three highly infectious diseases in poultry: infectious bursal disease, Newcastle disease and Marek’s disease. “With one shot, you’re treating three different diseases,” says Holzbauer. Merck expects the new vaccine to be available here late this year.

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