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Vets and food

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HOW big a role will vets play in food production in 10 or 20 years' time, and to what extent will this have been shaped by the profession itself? These are not new questions; they were raised in the Lowe report of 2009 and are currently being addressed by the Veterinary Development Council, which was set up by the BVA on the basis of a recommendation in that report and is currently addressing some of the issues in more depth. Although not new, they are becoming increasingly pertinent at a time of renewed interest in food safety and security, and when the relationship between vets and government is changing rapidly.

On pp 302–303 of this issue, Philip Lowe and colleagues from the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle university set the scene for a series of articles to be published in Veterinary Record over the next few weeks, which will reflect on some of the issues raised in his report and the wider role of vets in relation to government and society. The hope is that the series will both inform and stimulate debate on the subject that should be of interest to everyone with an interest in safe and sustainable food production.

The origins of the Lowe report stretch back to 2003 and a report from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which raised concerns that, with more vets focusing on companion animals, and because of the economic pressures on farmers and veterinary practices, not enough farm animal vets would be available to help fulfil the aims of the UK's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy. These concerns were largely dismissed by the Government, which nevertheless set up a steering group, under the chairmanship of Professor Lowe, to look into the issues further. In his report published in 2009, Professor Lowe said he did not see any evidence of an absolute shortfall in the number of vets who might be available for large animal work, nor did he find a widespread sense among farmers that vets were difficult to find. Instead, he identified a mismatch between the services being provided and what producers said they required. Emphasising the importance of the veterinary contribution to safe food production not just at farm level but throughout the production chain, he recommended that veterinary services needed to become more closely aligned to the changing needs of the livestock sector, and that the veterinary profession needed to develop its business and marketing skills and do more to explain what it had to offer.

In the article in this issue, Professor Lowe and his colleagues revisit some of the issues discussed in the report and assess progress since. They also express concern that, if farm animal work becomes marginalised within the profession, this will have serious consequences for society, and the profession's public standing and political influence will decline.

Subsequent articles in the series will look at specialisation in the profession and the need to develop a coherent model for this that is easily understood; the challenge of fulfilling the required role in public health and food assurance; and the unique role of veterinary practitioners as ‘knowledge brokers’, not just in transferring knowledge from other experts but, by drawing on their own accumulated field expertise and knowledge of local circumstances, tailoring their advice and adding new knowledge of their own. Another article will examine the changing and currently sometimes strained relationship between vets and government in the context of a shift in the prevailing political ideology in Britain and elsewhere. The final article will put efforts to define the role of the veterinary profession in food production in a historical context, suggesting, among other things, that the current emphasis on a broad preventive approach and concern about the future are not entirely new.

The first meeting of the Veterinary Development Council was held in January this year and was attended by more than 50 people representing different sectors of the food supply chain. Under the chairmanship of Richard Bennett, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Reading, it is looking at the market for veterinary services in the food chain and the specific role that vets can play, and how this market might best be organised for everyone's benefit (VR, May 28, 2011, vol 168, pp 554–555). As part of this process, it is currently undertaking surveys of the role of technicians/paraprofessionals in veterinary practice and current business models for the provision of veterinary services, which can be accessed via the BVA's website (www.bva.co.uk). As the Government moves forward with its agenda on responsibility and cost sharing, aligning the provision of services to the needs of the market is becoming increasingly important. Professor Bennett will give an update on progress at the BVA's annual congress later this month, in a debate which will also feature a presentation on what livestock farmers want from their vet.

■ The BVA Congress will be held in London from September 22 to 24. Details at www.bva.co.uk/BVA_Congress.aspx

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