The dwindling influence of vets in the public health arena threatens food safety in the UK, argues a rural social scientist in this week's Veterinary Record.
Philip Lowe, from the Centre for Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle, argues that a shift in practice from treating animals used for food on farms to looking after pets in urban communities, is largely to blame.
AdvertisementThe proportion of time vets in private practice spent treating animals used for food halved between 1998 and 2006, he writes. Most vets run their own businesses, and pet owners have proved a more sustainable and lucrative source of income than farmers.
Professor Lowe sympathises with the need to make money, but he laments this drift towards the profession turning into "another private sector service industry."
This fails to make use of vets' considerable and wide ranging expertise, he says, adding: "I would argue that it also diminishes the public standing of the whole profession. I certainly couldn't imagine the medical establishment in this country accepting a role that marginalised public health, even if the NHS did not exist."
"More seriously for all of us, I believe that not involving vets in this important area also puts food safety in the UK at risk," he continues.
"At the same time we live in an age when there is real and widespread public concern about welfare standards for farm animals, threats from animal diseases old and new [such as blue tongue, bird flu and swine flu], and food safety."
In the past the veterinary arm of government traditionally provided leadership for the profession, writes Professor Lowe, that was embodied by the Chief Veterinary Officer and was underpinned by the proportion of vets' income derived from public funding.
But this is no longer the case, he writes, and is further undermined by the percentage of vets employed by government having shrunk from 11% to 4% over the past 40 years.
The profession needs to rethink its role and the direction in which it is travelling, he urges.
And there needs to be more specialist support and training for student vets and novice practitioners so that they are not put off from farm practice before they have had a chance to develop their skills and confidence in this area, he says.
But he cautions against returning to the stereotype popularised by the fictional James Herriot vet, who was depicted as a mainstay of the rural community.
"The farm vet's position and respect for their expertise needs to be restored, but not in the old Herriot mould. He or she has to take on the much greater challenge of risk and welfare regulation and management across the whole food system," says Professor Lowe.