Decline in Farm Animal Vets Threatens Food Safety

The demand for large animal veterinarians in the food industry is rising much faster than the supply, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Between 1998 and 2009, the ranks of large animal vets dipped from 5,553 to 5,040. A survey of graduating veterinary school students released by the AVMA in October found that only 2% said they would prefer to work mostly with large animals, and just 7% had studied a curriculum that included both small and large animals.

Meanwhile, the AVMA has also found that the demand for veterinarians in food supply veterinary medicine will increase about 13% over the next several years, while the supply will fall short of demand by 4% to 5% annually. Between 1988 and 2010, the percentage of veterinary school graduates accepting a position in the food sector dropped from 10.3% to 3.9%.

The shortage has serious implications, said W. Ron DeHaven, DVM, MBA, executive vice president of the AVMA and former administrator of the federal Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS): “First, healthy animals produce safe food. Second, there’s always the potential for the introduction of a foreign animal disease into the U.S., and it’s the eyes and ears of veterinarians in the field who will be the first to identify that disease introduction. The fewer food animal veterinarians we have, the longer it will be before we identify that disease. And 75% of those diseases that could be introduced into livestock and poultry are zoonotic and can also affect people.”

In 2003, the National Veterinary Medical Service Act authorized veterinary medical loan repayments for vets who serve in underserved rural areas, but it’s taken until now to move forward with the program’s implementation. In November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the first individuals to be awarded agreements under the $9.6 million program, which provides for up to $100,000 in loan repayment over a four-year period in return for service in an underserved area.

Working with the pharmaceutical industry, the AVMA has created a similar program, which also provides $100,000 in loan repayments, for up to five individuals each year. “About a dozen states have similar programs with varying degrees of financial support to make them viable, with Kansas’ being the most successful,” Dr. DeHaven noted. “The hope is that these loan repayments will make it economically viable for these young professionals to establish their practices in rural areas and stay on. Often, they’re kids who grew up in rural America and want to go back, but can’t afford to.”

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