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Vets and food safety

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INTEREST in food safety usually comes on the back of a major food safety incident, as happened in the 1990s, for example, with BSE. So it is good to see that the World Health Organization (WHO) has chosen ‘Food Safety’ as the topic for this year's World Health Day. Held each year on April 7, the day marks the founding of the WHO and is intended to draw attention to a subject of major importance to global health. Not all of the topics covered by previous World Health Days will have been of specific interest to the veterinary profession but, given the integral role of vets in helping to ensure safe food production, this one certainly should be.

Although, in this instance, there might not be an immediately obvious incident to pin it on, the WHO's initiative is important, as the need to ensure that food is safe to eat is constant. As Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, put it in an editorial in The Lancet recently, ‘A global scandal is often needed to stir the collective consciousness on food safety, such as the BSE crisis in the 1990s or the adulteration of milk with melamine in 2008, which hit some countries badly. The threat of food safety is then largely forgotten until the next emergency. It is high time for a sustainable response to the core problems, which are fragmentation of food safety authorities, unstable budgets, and a dearth of convincing evidence on the effect of foodborne diseases.’

One of the aims of World Health Day, she explained, would be ‘to catalyse collective government and public action to put measures in place that will improve safety of food from farms, factories, street vendors and kitchens’. Also in 2015, the WHO plans to publish estimates of the global burden of foodborne diseases, to show the scale of the problem.1

Discussing the initiative further on its website,2 the WHO notes, among other things, that unsafe food is linked to the deaths of an estimated two million people annually, including many children. It notes, too, that new threats to food safety are constantly emerging and that ‘as our food supply becomes increasingly globalised, the need to strengthen food safety systems in and between all countries is becoming more and more evident’. It points out that food safety is a shared responsibility and that it is important to work ‘all along the food production chain – from farmers and manufacturers to vendors and consumers’. World Health Day 2015, it says, is ‘an opportunity to alert people working in different government sectors, farmers, manufacturers, retailers, health practitioners – as well as consumers – about the importance of food safety, and the part each can play in ensuring that everyone can feel confident that the food on their plate is safe to eat’.

It is disappointing, given their significant and often crucial role in helping to ensure the safety of foods of animal origin, that the WHO doesn't specifically mention veterinarians in that statement, and one must hope that this represents an oversight rather than a gap in the organisation's thinking.

The role of veterinarians in relation to food safety is clearly set out in the World Organisation for Animal Health's (OIE's) Terrestrial Animal Health Code, which sets standards for animal health and welfare and veterinary public health worldwide, as well as for international trade in animals and their products. It is also an important feature of EU legislation. Both recognise the importance of an integrated ‘farm to fork’ approach to food safety and the need for veterinary involvement throughout the food chain. However, while such an approach makes absolute sense in theory, and the potential benefits have been recognised for some time, applying it in practice has proved difficult.

In part, the problem is one of resources with, for example, a report produced for the OIE a few years ago arguing that, in many countries, a shortage of veterinarians and a lack of investment in veterinary infrastructure was limiting development and putting global food security at risk (VR, May 28, 2011, vol 168, p 546). It is also partly cultural, as traditional views of roles and responsibilities in relation to food safety and veterinary and public health prove hard to change. In the UK, the Lowe report of 2009 argued that ‘conservatism in the relationship between farmers and the veterinary profession’ was contributing to the problem, and called on the veterinary profession to take more of a lead. It also argued that the centralised development of the Meat Hygiene Service had created ‘a cultural and organisational gulf between animal and public health veterinarians in the food chain’, making the reality of a farm to fork approach to food safety more difficult to achieve.3

Greater veterinary involvement in the food production chain also featured in the recommendations of the Veterinary Development Council, which was subsequently set up to take the Lowe report's recommendations forward (VR, May 12, 2012, vol 170, pp 478, 479-480). Some progress has been made since then, with, for example, better appreciation of the value of active farm health planning and of the contribution that local practitioners can make on farms. Currently, it remains important to try to ensure that this is not set back as a result of the Government's decision to put TB testing and other Official Veterinarian (OV) functions out to tender. As well as having financial consequences for practices, this could have the effect of separating TB testing and the provision of other farm veterinary services, while also affecting the nature and structure of farm veterinary practice and the all-important relationship between local vets and farmers.

It is worrying, too, that, as the need for greater veterinary involvement in helping to ensure safe food production becomes increasingly apparent, the proportion of vets working in mixed or farm animal practice in the UK appears to be falling. The results of the latest RCVS Survey of the Profession in 2014 indicated that the proportion of vets working in mixed practice had fallen from 22 to 16 per cent between 2010 and 2014; meanwhile, having declined in previous years, the proportion working in farm animal/production animal practice appeared to have stabilised at around 4 per cent (VR, September 27, 2014, vol 175, p 288). World Health Day 2015 provides an opportunity to draw attention not only to the importance of food safety, but also to the contribution veterinarians make, and what more they could do, in this area.

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