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Shortage of Veterinarians Has Food-Safety Experts Concerned

Public health veterinarians play a vital role in ensuring sanitary procedures are followed. (Schweiz/Pixabay)
Public health veterinarians play a vital role in ensuring sanitary procedures are followed. (Schweiz/Pixabay)
August 29, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa – When you think of the field of veterinary science, you probably think of people who treat family pets, but veterinarians also play a vital role in food safety, where their dwindling ranks have both federal and state officials worried.

Public-health veterinarians, who understand foodborne diseases, currently oversee slaughter plants. But if the next generation of veterinarians doesn't take a professional interest in food safety, there's concern about what ultimately could happen.

Iowa Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau Chief Dr. Kathryn Polking says individuals have limits.

"Certainly if we don't have enough veterinarians to provide coverage, that places additional stress on the remaining," she notes. "They may not be as sharp about performing their duties as they would normally be."

Members of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians also have voiced concerns, noting that public health vets play a vital role in preventing bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli from entering the food system.

Private-practice veterinarians tend to earn considerably more than public health vets, but Polking says incentives such as student loan repayment could prove helpful.

Polking says there are some advantages to joining the ranks of the public-health veterinary field rather than working in private practice.

"Some of them do come out of several years in private practice, myself included," she says. "Some of them are looking for a job that does not involve dealing with clients on a daily basis or that has a little more regular hours, does not have the on-call responsibilities that a practice job would."

The demand for veterinarians, either in private practice or public health, is outpacing supply. The Food Safety Inspection Service is hoping appropriations from the federal government will be forthcoming to address the issue. Until then, they say, the public-health veterinary field will be hard-pressed to attract the talent needed.

Kevin Patrick Allen, Public News Service - IA