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Veterinarians play an important role in every step of the food production process from farm to plate, and food supply veterinarians are critical to ensuring a safe and secure food supply across the nation and around the world.
“Veterinarians work to protect the health and well-being of animals that produce meat, milk, eggs, wool, and other animal products from diseases that threaten animal health, even from some of the same diseases that also threaten human health, like influenza,” says Michelle M. Colby, DVM, national program leader for animal biosecurity at the USDA.
On the farm, veterinarians work with clients and producers to ensure animal health and welfare, treat with appropriate medications when the animals are sick, and confirm that adequate withdrawal times are honored. These private practitioners are also the first line of defense for detecting new and emerging animal diseases.
On the retail side, veterinarians are important to ensuring packaged meat and poultry products are safe, healthy, and accurately labeled. These inspections can be conducted by federal or state level veterinarians.
Other veterinarians in universities, federal, state, and local agencies play critical roles in defending the food supply through animal disease, surveillance, control, and eradication efforts.
By the Numbers
Mark Lutschaunig, head of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) governmental relations division, says the maldistribution of veterinarians is a concerning issue in the veterinary profession.
“We’re seeing a critical shortage of veterinarians, especially those who work in food animal medicine in rural areas of the country and it’s getting to the point where it could impact the food supply and food safety,” he says.
The recent 2017 AVMA Report on The Market for Veterinarians noted that in 2016, the number of job opportunities for veterinarians was greater than the number of applicants, with some locations having more than 10 applicants per job opening and in other areas, employers could find no one to apply for open positions. This data would seem to indicate that some places had too many veterinarians and in other places there were too few.
The report also found that “new veterinarians seek employment in communities similar to those where they grew up” not exclusively, but certainly at a much higher rate than they do in other communities. Between 2013-2016, only 12 percent of the 10,175 new veterinarians grew up in a rural community (57.1 percent suburban, 30.9 percent urban) and 23.6 percent found employment in a rural area (62 percent of those that grew up in a rural area, 20 percent of those that grew up in suburbs, 15 percent of those that grew up in an urban area).
Finding a Plan
Lutschaunig notes that when students graduate from veterinarian school with an average of more than $100,000 in loan debt, even though they might want to work in rural areas, they can’t do it because they need a higher paying job to service their student loans.
USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, authorized by the National Veterinary Medical Services Act (NVMSA) in January of 2003, helps qualified veterinarians offset a significant portion of debt incurred in pursuit of their veterinary medicine degrees in return for their service in certain high-priority veterinary shortage situations. Appropriations for fiscal year 2018 were increased by $1.5 million compared to fiscal year 2017.
The Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) carries out NVMSA by entering in educational loan repayment agreements with veterinarians who agree to provide veterinary services in shortage situations for a determined period of time. With that, veterinarians commit to at least three years to providing services in a designated shortage area, and NIFA may repay up to $25,000 of eligible student loan debt per year.