Jul 04, 2010

Vet Shortage May Mean Risks for Food Supply

By Caitlin Meredith

Finding new vets like Amy Jo Pilmer to work in private practice treating large animals one on one is difficult, but that is just one area where severe shortages are looming. Professional vacancies in veterinary medicine that could have a much bigger impact on public health concerns like food safety.

As the population increases — the U.S. Census predicts a more than 50 percent rise between 1990 and 2050, to about 392 million — so will the demand for cows and pigs and other food animals. Ensuring the quality of that food supply is the job of regulatory veterinarians, who make up only 17 percent of the profession, according to the American Veterinary Medicine Association.

Few students go to vet school to become government food supply inspectors or experts in animal pathology, according to Dan Posey, the director of special and professional programs at Texas A&M’s veterinary school. While 80 percent of graduates go into private practice (and only a quarter of them will treat large animals), only 15 to 20 percent pursue careers that might have a larger public health impact, Posey said.

Without those inspectors, diseases like brucellosis can make their way into our food supply. Although brucellosis has been increasingly rare in recent years, Texas has been slower than other states to eradicate it. January 2010 was the first time none of Texas’ 153,000 cattle herds were under quarantine from suspicion of the disease in the 50 years it’s been monitored, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission. That monitoring, done by vets like Pilmer on the ranch and by federal and state meat inspectors at slaughterhouses, prevents a sick cow in the Texas panhandle from becoming a tainted hamburger fed to a child in Odessa.

The need is great for meat inspectors, but experts are at a loss as to how to fill it. Howard Johnson, director of Texas’ Meat Safety Assurance Unit, says that finding veterinarians for these jobs is a hard sell. “On the weekends I volunteer at a small animal wellness clinic, and there we have a list of vets pounding on our door who want to help out,” Johnson said. “There’s no such list for meat inspection.”

As Johnson sees it, part of the problem is vets’ own perceptions of their role. “Very few students see public health as a part of their job,” he said. “Of those that do, very few would have meat inspection at the top of their list.”

The demand for food supply veterinarians will to increase 12 to 16 percent in the next few years while the number of veterinary graduates will decrease by around 5 percent each year, according to the veterinary association. This could become a crisis if American’s appetite for beef continues; every week between 600,000 and 700,000 cattle are slaughtered to produce the roughly 540 million pounds of beef Americans eat each year. So finding people who can detect and contain animal disease epidemics is crucial.

In border states like Texas, especially, monitoring and surveillance of large animals arriving from Mexico — and the diseases they can carry — is crucial for making sure new infectious agents, or new strains of old ones, are quickly found and destroyed. The cattle fever tick has long been a scourge for ranchers along the Rio Grande; the last major infestation in 1972 led to the quarantine and destruction of thousands of cattle, and the end of many small ranchers’ livelihood. With a shortage of qualified veterinarian inspectors in the area, some fear that another outbreak would stretch state surveillance and control resources to the breaking point.