Two leading U.S. veterinary organizations are criticizing a published report that questions the financial ties between food animal veterinarians and the drug industry and casts doubt on whether practitioners can be counted on to oversee the judicious use of antibiotics in animals such as chickens and cattle.
The investigation by the news service Reuters came on the heels of a similar report in The Indianapolis Star, which examined potential conflicts of interest between pharmaceutical companies and small animal veterinarians. Both accounts noted that while financial connections between drug makers and doctors of human medicine are open to public scrutiny, the veterinary industry is free to arrange and keep secret its relationships.
“That means veterinarians can be wined and dined and given scholarships, awards, stipends, gifts and trips by pharmaceutical benefactors without the knowledge of the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] or the public,” according to the Reuters series, titled “Farmaceuticals.”
The American Association of Bovine Practitioners objected to the tone of the Reuters report and pointed out inaccuracies.
One article in particular, headlined “Veterinarians Face Conflicting Allegiances to Animals, Farmers and Drug Companies,” was meant to “disparage the ethics, scientific training and food animal veterinarians’ relationship with animal pharmaceutical companies,” AABP stated.
“The AABP objects to the author’s questioning of veterinarians’ integrity in prescribing or using these animal health products,” the organization added.
Ted Cohn, DVM, the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said the article “clearly questions the integrity of doctors of veterinary medicine and their motives.”
“As the largest organization representing America’s veterinarians, we take exception to the implication that veterinary professionals, who have committed their lives to the health and well-being of animals, could be so easily swayed by financial motives,” Dr. Cohn wrote.
The Reuters story used the world’s largest veterinary drug maker, Zoetis Inc., as an example. According to Reuters, the Florham Park, N.J., company provides “scholarships and loan assistance for veterinary students, awards for faculty, sponsorship of continuing education sessions, funding for veterinary associations, and payments for veterinarians to speak, consult and research.”
The report noted that Purdue University’s veterinary school dean, Willie M. Reed, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVP, Dipl. ACPV, earns almost as much money by sitting on the Zoetis board of directors as he does from his university work, and that some veterinary students are paid to serve as on-campus pharmaceutical representatives.
Zoetis told Reuters that payments to veterinarians are monitored to “ensure that our educational and promotional efforts do not inappropriately reward prescribing or dispending behavior.”
One inaccuracy that AABP cited was Reuters’ claim that veterinarians obtain their continuing education from company-sponsored sessions.
“Our annual meeting has longstanding policies against the delivery of commercial educational material from manufacturers,” said AABP President John Davidson, DVM, Dipl. ABVP.
“The policy that the AABP board of directors set forth years ago regarding its annual conference is that pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to sponsor scientific sessions or contribute commercial content for those sessions,” the organization added.
A major portion of the “Farmaceuticals” series looked at efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics in food animals and at a looming FDA policy that will empower veterinarians—under a veterinary feed directive—to decide when antibiotics used in human medicine may be given to animals. Excessive use of antibiotics in animals, often to promote growth and feed efficiency, has been linked to the evolution of so-called “superbugs” that pose significant danger to people.
The Reuters report suggested that food animal producers and the veterinarians they hire may be reluctant to reduce or eliminate antibiotic use.
“No matter what labels say,” the Reuters report stated, “meat producers can continue to use existing antibiotics at low levels, so long as producers assert the drugs are used for treatment, control and prevention of disease.”
AABP registered its objections.
“As the nation’s leading group of cattle veterinarians, the AABP has been actively involved in the development of the proposed FDA legislation and supports the continued application of decision making based on science and not manufacturer influence,” Dr. Davidson said.
U.S. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, plans to introduce legislation that would require the public disclosure of drug company payments to veterinarians, Reuters stated.
AVMA disclosed to Reuters that the organization took in $3.3 million from drug companies over a four-year period. AVMA declined to identify the contributors but said it backs Slaughter’s proposal.
“We would be happy to work with Rep. Slaughter or any federal officials in the drafting of legislation designed to increase transparency and eliminate any perceptions of impropriety,” Dr. Cohn said.