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Vets and food

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IN considering the report of the Veterinary Development Council (VDC), which was published last week, it is worth remembering how the council came about. The council was set up in 2011 on the basis of a recommendation in a report called ‘Unlocking potential’ by Philip Lowe, which discussed the role of veterinary expertise in food production (VR, August 15, 2009, vol 165, pp 185, 186–188). The Lowe report had been commissioned because of concerns, highlighted by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in 2003, that there might not be enough large animal vets available to fulfil the aims of the UK Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, particularly in areas of low livestock density, where the economics of farming and practice were such that provision of farm veterinary services might no longer be viable. There were also concerns that the problem could be exacerbated by government plans to transfer more of the costs of animal health to the industry (VR, November 1, 2003, vol 153, pp 541, 542–544).

In the event, and perhaps contrary to expectations, Professor Lowe suggested that there was no absolute shortage of vets who might be available for large animal work, arguing instead that the profession needed to re-engage with food and farming, and pay more heed to the needs of its customers. While emphasising the importance of the veterinary contribution to safeguarding animal health, improving productivity and protecting the food chain, he suggested that demand for veterinary services was poorly developed and argued that the veterinary profession needed to improve its business and marketing skills and develop services that were more closely aligned to the changing needs of the livestock sector. Pointing out that ‘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’, he suggested that this could be ‘countered and reversed if all those involved acted resolutely and in one accord’ (VR, August 15, 2009, vol 165, p 185).

The VDC was set up specifically in this context and its recommendations need to be viewed in this light. As the council's chairman, Richard Bennett, comments in his foreword to the report, ‘There are many demands on the veterinarian from the food supply chain and an increasing challenge to adapt the provision of veterinary services to meet these demands as effectively and efficiently as possible. The aim of the VDC has been to identify practical ways in which this adaptation by the veterinary profession might be supported.’

Like the Lowe report that prompted it, the VDC's report (see pp 479–480 of this issue) does not necessarily make for comfortable reading. The discussion on the use of technicians and paraprofessionals, for example, while reporting apparent support for a closer working relationship between the veterinary profession and the farming/equine community, also hints at the legislative and practical difficulties involved. Data presented in the discussion of business models suggest that, despite the efforts that have been made to promote veterinary services in recent years, many practices providing farm veterinary services still depend on medicines sales for a significant proportion of their income. Comments in the report such as ‘There was frustration expressed in the food industry at the apparent lack of engagement in food chain activities by the veterinary profession’ and ‘The proof of opportunity lies in the feedback from farmers claiming that private vets are not always sufficiently proficient in skills to aid in endemic condition or management issues such as lameness, fertility, nutrition, building design, etc’ are also worrying, and it would seem important that these concerns are either corrected or addressed.

A recommendation in the report that the Government should consider animal health and welfare as an area worth supporting using European Rural Development funding is an important one and needs to be taken forward. A scheme along these lines has been operating in Scotland since 2005 with some success, and could usefully be applied more widely. Such an approach would recognise that there is a ‘public good’ element to safeguarding animal health and welfare; a concept which seems to have fallen rather out of fashion of late but needs to be revived. This seems particularly important at a time when the Government seems set to move forward with plans for responsibility and cost sharing, when the funding available to safeguard animal health and welfare is reducing and market forces and less red tape are seen as the solution to all ills.

This is not to suggest that the veterinary profession should not do more to develop appropriate business models or engage more effectively with the industry. However, the value to society of safeguarding animal health, public health and animal welfare also needs to be recognised. There remains a ‘public good’ element in this that must continue to be taken into account.

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