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Renewing relationships

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'THE marginalisation of food animal veterinary medicine is potentially to the detriment of the veterinary profession, the farming and food sectors and the public interest in the health and welfare of food animals. It can be countered and reversed if those involved act resolutely and in accord.'

This is one of the conclusions of 'Unlocking Potential', the eagerly awaited report on veterinary expertise in food animal production from Professor Philip Lowe, which was finally published last week after nearly two years in gestation (see pp 186-188 of this issue).

The origins of the report go back further than that - to a report by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) in 2003, which raised concerns about whether enough large animal vets would be available to help fulfil the aims of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (VR, November 1, 2003, vol 153, pp 541, 542–544). The EFRACom's concerns were legitimate, but were perfunctorily dismissed by the Government which, in an abject response to the committee, said that there was 'no evidence of market failure' in the provision of farm animal veterinary services and that it saw little reason to intervene (VR, August 7, 2004, vol 155, pp 157–158).

Professor Lowe's report is an altogether more thoughtful affair, which both highlights the importance of veterinary involvement in food animal production and provides some useful insights into the situation as things stand. As such, it should be considered essential reading for anyone with an interest in the provision of farm animal veterinary services in the UK and many more people besides. This is not to say that it will necessarily make comfortable reading for the veterinary profession, or that it will be easy to agree with everything it says. For example, parts of the report paint a picture of a profession that is out of touch with the needs of its 'customers', while others suggest that, with shrinking involvement in food and farming work, it is in danger of losing focus. It is also suggested that veterinary medicine has been 'very slow and conservative' in its approach to establishing specialist practitioners, and that it has lagged behind other health professions in involving paraprofessionals in the provision of services.

Professor Lowe suggests that there is no absolute shortfall in the supply of vets who might be available for farm animal work, although he does argue the case for 'inflecting' the training of students with an interest in this field. He emphasises the importance of the veterinary contribution to safeguarding animal health, improved productivity and protecting the food chain, but notes that demand for farm animal veterinary services is poorly developed. Recurring themes in his report are that services need to be more closely aligned to the changing needs of the livestock sector, and that the veterinary profession needs to develop its business and marketing skills and do more to explain what it has to offer.

Some of the most pertinent observations in the report concern the changing relationship between the veterinary profession and government and the 'very divergent interests' that food animal vets are required to reconcile in deploying their expertise in the care and treatment of animals. It describes how the Government's position has changed over the years, from a hierarchical situation where it acted as a patron and sponsor of the veterinary profession and farming to one where responsibility is being devolved and transferred to the industry. It points out that the Government must not relinquish its responsibilities for animal health, but argues that the profession must renew its relationship with government to reflect these changing circumstances. It further suggests that vets must renew their relationship with farmers, while also pointing out that farming and food industry leaders should publicly acknowledge the key contribution of veterinary services to the economic health and public standing of their industries.

The proposal in the report for a new Veterinary Development Council to guide the long-term development of veterinary services is an interesting one, although it is not altogether clear how this might relate to the profession's existing professional bodies.

Despite this and other suggestions, Professor Lowe's report offers more in the way of diagnosis than solutions, although to be fair, providing solutions wasn't really part of his remit. Defra says it will carefully consider the report and that the issues will be discussed at a meeting of the Vets and Veterinary Services Steering Group in November, but in many respects that isn't really the point either. An overwhelming message from the report is that the veterinary profession itself should take more of a lead, and play a greater part in defining its role in food animal production in the future.

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