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Protecting public health, safeguarding animal welfare
  1. Bethany Hawksworth-Brookes

Abstract

Recent graduate Bethany Hawksworth-Brookes decided at vet school that her true interests lay in veterinary public health

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WHEN I started out as a vet student I had it in mind to become a large animal practitioner. Throughout my studies, I changed my mind a few times, considering exotic animal and zoo medicine. I always enjoyed veterinary public health as a subject, and found that the lecturers at the University of Bristol were very encouraging. I think, in the end, I decided that practice wasn't for me (I was never very good at pharmacology anyway). In part, this was because it meant only dealing with local clients and their animals instead of seeing and dealing with the bigger picture in relation to animal welfare and public health; and that I just didn't find it as interesting or exciting as the opportunities offered by working in veterinary public health.

As an Official Veterinarian (OV), my job involves assessing animal welfare during transport and monitoring animal welfare at slaughter, and escalating enforcement should breaches in animal welfare law occur. I am also the technical lead in a slaughter plant for a team of meat inspectors. We work together to make decisions with regard to the fitness of meat for human consumption as well as making improvements in the plant. Part of the role of an enforcement officer involves communicating with the food business operator and their staff to ensure that good practices – with regard to both animal welfare and food hygiene – are maintained at all times.

During my final year at university, I did a three-week OV course as my elective. After the final exam, we had a meal to celebrate, and I met the veterinary manager of Eville & Jones for the Bristol area. My university lecturer introduced us, knowing how keen I was to enter the world of public health and be an OV. Shortly after that I was invited to an interview (I drove nearly the length of the country to attend it) and was offered the job.

Starting out as a novice OV, I spent several ‘induction’ days at various plants (starting in a relief role, covering holidays and sickness, etc). The experience helped me to understand how different plants worked. I also met a variety of meat inspectors who taught me lots about meat inspection, which I hadn't had any real hands-on experience of. They were supportive and helpful, and I still ask for advice from experienced meat inspectors, as well as OVs, if I am unsure of a decision concerning a carcase.

I also had a supervisory OV, as do all novice OVs, who answered my questions, helped me to fill in my log book and gave me advice on the essay I had to submit. My supervisory OV was always willing to help. Additionally, other experienced colleagues, such as my area manager and his deputy, often visited me or mentored me during phone conversations. I still find it helpful to have people to call on if I want advice or I'm not 100 per cent sure of the course of action to take.

There is a huge amount of support for people working in this field, whether they are a new graduate or an experienced vet. Asking questions is the best way to learn and there are many people willing to help and support a new colleague. After all, my job is important because OVs (and meat inspectors) are the front line, protecting public health and safeguarding animal welfare.

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OVs are also often present when animals are unloaded into the lairage. We have an important role in ensuring that animal welfare law is complied with as well as looking out for any potential animal welfare issues at unloading. We assess each animal for any signs of diseases (notifiable, infectious, etc) and any abnormalities. I communicate this to my inspection team as it may be relevant at postmortem inspection. Along with the meat inspection teams, we decide whether meat can enter the food chain, thereby protecting the public from infectious and zoonotic diseases. It is our responsibility to make the correct decision when health marking carcases or passing offal as fit for human consumption. People trust that their meat is fit to eat and that it has been produced in a hygienic environment with correct hygiene practices being carried out.

Information regarding rejection of meat is also communicated back to the farmers, and OVs are an important source of information for national surveillance and for individual farmers. Our rejections can highlight health and/or welfare problems on farm, which I feel is another important role. I enjoy practical meat inspection as we see lots of interesting conditions. I have the satisfaction of doing a job that's worthwhile and I know I make a difference to animal health and welfare and public health. I enjoy sharing a joke and a bit of banter with the team, and I enjoy working through the problems and challenges that are presented on a daily basis.

Not being on-call during the evenings or at weekends is a benefit too. Occasionally I might work a Saturday or a bank holiday, but I enjoy not having to worry that someone is going to call me out in the middle of the night. My work-life balance is great and I have plenty of time to do things outside of work. However, I don't always like the early starts (especially in winter when it's cold and dark).

As far my future is concerned, I am interested in developments in animal welfare, as well as epidemiology and the spread and control of infectious and zoonotic diseases, but at present I am unsure where my career will take me.

To anyone considering working in veterinary public health, I would say don't be put off if it is something you are interested in. When I tell people I'm a vet they always ask whether I work with large or small animals. They seem very surprised when I tell them that I don't work in practice and that I work in the meat industry. People may consider that alternative veterinary roles are ‘not proper vet jobs’, but this is probably a lack of understanding as to what a veterinary degree trains us to be able to do. I would encourage undergraduates to get practical meat inspection experience: not only does it help with learning pathology and the anatomy of different species, but it is also good to get experience in plants to see how they work and to find out what the job is really like. It's a job that can't be learned from a textbook and getting real hands-on experience is invaluable.

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