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Vets and food security

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LIVESTOCK play an essential role in food production and are likely to do so for some time to come. Demand for livestock products may be stagnating in the developed world but, in developing countries, where many people depend on animals for transport as well as food, demand is likely to increase. According to the report of a study presented at an assembly of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris this week, a shortage of veterinarians in many countries is limiting development and putting global food security at risk.*

One hundred and eight of the OIE'S 178 member countries took part in the study, which assessed the numbers of public and private veterinarians involved in food production. More than half of the participating countries reported that they had fewer than 35 public sector veterinarians per million inhabitants, and fewer than 100 private sector veterinarians per million inhabitants involved in the food chain. According to Dominique Martinez of the French agricultural research organisation CIRAD, who coordinated the study, ‘Veterinary activities are deployed at each stage in the food chain: production at farm level, processing, transport and distribution at the local and national level or for export. When veterinarians are too few to pursue their duties then the whole food security and food safety systems are affected.’

The study also examined the animal health infrastructure in the countries surveyed. Although all the countries had established an institutional, legislative and technical framework for organising veterinary activities, there was a marked disparity between industrialised and developing countries, ‘with chronic under-investment in the less wealthy countries, illustrated by the fact that in more than 60 per cent of the countries, public investment in the relevant fields amounted to less than US$2 per capita per year’. While 86 per cent of the countries reported having a theoretical capacity for early detection of animal health hazards, 30 per cent of them confirmed that they had had no suspected animal disease outbreaks during the previous five years, which, the OIE points out, puts the effectiveness of the surveillance system in doubt.

Regarding food safety policy, the study found that, as things stand, the resources of veterinary services are mainly devoted to slaughter inspection services, with input diminishing further along the food chain. Discussing differences in the role of veterinary services in developed and developing countries, the authors note that, in developing countries, veterinary services are still very active in attempting to control major diseases while, in developed countries, they are now more orientated towards inspection of products and surveillance for diseases. They note that, although all the participating countries had an institutional framework for veterinary services, ‘the resources allocated are often too poor in developing countries, which see an ever-widening gulf separating them from developing countries when it comes to animal production and the marketing of products.’

Although perhaps mainly concerned with veterinary provision in developing countries, the OIE report is relevant in a UK context, and not just because infectious diseases and food security are global issues and so in that sense everyone is in it together. Concern about the level of veterinary involvement in food production is not confined to the developing world. Indeed, it was concern about a shortage of farm animal vets that led to the establishment of the Veterinary Development Council in the UK, which is currently looking at ways of increasing veterinary involvement in the food chain (see p 554–555 of this issue). Meanwhile, with funding for surveillance and state veterinary services being squeezed in the UK, and the way animal health and welfare are paid for likely to change with the introduction of new arrangements for sharing responsibilities and costs, it provides a pertinent reminder of the importance of such activities, which should not be taken for granted.

The OIE paper also draws attention to the veterinarian's role in helping to reduce the environmental impact of livestock production and this, too, is an area to which more attention should be devoted in the future.

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