Food Animal Vets Dispute Abuse Charges

What food animal veterinarians and the industry in general must do is supply good information to the public.

When animal abuse is called the standard of care in food animal production, food animal practitioners take issue, maintaining that the acts of a few bad apples do not define the industry.

Food animal veterinarians say special-interest groups release video footage and anti-farming propaganda in an effort to quash the use of animals for food in any capacity. The practitioners fear that using the popular media to spread negative messages is just the first leg in the activists’ campaign to pass legislation that would virtually annihilate producers’ and farmers’ financial ability to operate.

“The topic of the level of care for animals raised for food is one of the most misrepresented facets of animal agriculture,” says M. Gatz Riddell Jr., DVM, executive vice president of the 4,000-member American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP).

“What food animal veterinarians and the industry in general must do is supply good information to the public about modern agriculture, animal care and food safety,” Dr. Riddell says. “The public needs to be made aware of the efforts being made in the areas of animal welfare, food safety and resource sustainability while maintaining the integrity of the food production systems in the United States.”

Veterinarians say the myths about the care of food animals are so vast that even their companion animal colleagues have become critics.

“Any food animal vet I know would be the first to report evidence of inhumane treatment of animals,” says Leon D. Weaver, VMD, the owner of Bridgewater LLC, a dairy farm in Montpelier, Ohio.

“Industry leaders are taking matters into their hands, creating and promoting legislation such as Ohio’s Issue 2, which allows regulation to come from experienced, qualified food animal production individuals.”

Ohio Legislation

Ohio voters approved Issue 2 on Nov. 3, altering the state’s constitution and ordering the governor and Legislature to form the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board. The board will have the authority to establish standards governing the care and well-being of livestock and poultry and consider factors such as agricultural best-management practices, biosecurity, disease prevention and food safety.

The 13-member panel will include a veterinarian, the state veterinarian, family farmers, a food-safety expert, a representative of a local humane society, members of statewide farm organizations, the dean of an Ohio agriculture college and two consumers.

“Everyone will be watching to see how Ohio is managed under the new board,” Dr. Weaver says. “This legislation was put into place as a preemptive measure by Ohio producers, who feared the Humane Society of the United States’ interest and financial ability to create stricter legislation that would mandate standard-of-care measures that aren’t logical for the industry.

“HSUS doesn’t work in the industry and doesn’t consider how such legislation would be detrimental to Ohio’s agriculture-dominated economy, or what is necessary for the 1 percent of the country’s population that farm to supply food for the entire population.”

HSUS isn’t the only animal-rights organization that lobbied against Issue 2. Mercy for Animals published a statement contending that the proposal was “an attempt to hijack Ohio’s constitution by creating an animal-abuser-dominated board that would have sole authority to create livestock care standards.”

Veterinarians say these special-interest groups perpetuate abuse accusations as commonplace and faulty claims about the industry.

“They don’t want to see well-managed food animal farms. They want to see no farms,” says D. Scott McVey, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVM, a professor of veterinary microbiology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “For those who don’t live the same lifestyle as those who care for and raise food animals, it can be difficult to sort out the truth in reports from these groups.”

More Inaccuracies

Veterinarians say they have close working relationships with their producer/farmer clients. Inhumane animal treatment isn’t the only inaccurate criticism about the industry, they say. Inaccuracies about antibiotic use, management and growth chemicals given to animals too often pass as fact, spawning more public disdain for producers and those working in the industry.

“It is sad when the industry gains a negative image through inflammatory rhetoric,” the AABP’s Riddell says.

“The perception is that cows produce more milk today than in the 1950s because of a chemical stimulant, when the fact is the cows themselves not only have improved genetic potential but also vastly improved nutrition, hence able to produce more milk. All production practices implemented by food animal veterinarians are science-based and where necessary are FDA approved.”

Actions Beyond Ohio

Michigan: The governor signed a bill requiring that any pregnant pig, veal calf and egg-laying hen kept on a farm be housed so the animal can lie down, stand up and turn around freely. Exemptions include research, veterinary treatment, transportation, rodeos and state fairs, and during slaughter.

Producers and farmers will have three years to comply with the veal calf restrictions and 10 years to comply with the rules for pregnant sows and egg-laying hens.

The legislation followed negotiations between the agriculture industry and the Humane Society of the United States, avoiding a ballot initiative that could have resulted in stronger penalties and a shorter time frame for compliance.

California: A proposed law would apply caging standards to any hen whose eggs are imported into the state. Voters passed Proposition 2 in 2008, requiring that hens confined to cages be able to stand up, lie down, extend their limbs and turn around. Prop. 2 will take effect in 2015, as would this bill. The bill was amended to require the state Department of Public Health to adopt housing standards for egg-laying hens by Jan. 1, 2011.

Best Practices

The treatment of animals used for food and food products has continued to improve over the years, veterinarians say, pointing out that producers and farmers are more educated today than in years past.

“Although even the largest animal production companies are mainly family owned, farmers and producers aren’t simply taking over the family business; they’re going to college and learning the most efficient way to raise animals,” says Vickie Cooper, DVM, of Iowa State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and a cattle producer.

“Very positive things will come from my future colleagues. Food animal students are excited about working in the industry, and they learn medicine, epidemiology and schematics to perform their best for the animals and consumers.”

A prime example of farming evolution is Weaver’s Montpelier, Ohio, farm. Crops are raised in addition to a herd of 3,800 dairy cattle. Weaver also made a multi-million-dollar investment for his to become the first Ohio dairy to own an anaerobic methane digester. The machine uses a 16-foot-deep chamber to churn raw manure and convert it into biogas during a three-week cycle, producing the farm’s electricity. The dairy sells 30 percent more electricity than it uses.

Weaver opens his dairy to weekly tours to educate the public on how a well-managed farm operates. He shows first-hand the conditions in which the cows live.

“If we sit back and don’t have a voice while accusations are made about our industry, we’ll continue to make easy targets,” says Rodney Baker, DVM, a senior clinician in veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine at Iowa State University.

“Health and welfare are linked,” says Dr. Baker, president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. “They increasingly become more essential as quality and safety needs have expanded. The access we have to safe food is largely because of veterinarians and their relationship with producers.

“We brought pigs and poultry inside, away from the elements and cold to take better care of them, and suddenly the farms are labeled confined animal feeding operations (CAFO), used as a derogatory term. We have to step up and launch community and national campaigns to allow the public a first-hand look at farming.”

Antibiotics

Antibiotic use in animals and its effect on humans is another area in which a myth has dominated, farm practitioners say.

“Many things about the science of antibiotics are unknown or not understood,” the University of Nebraska’s Dr. McVey says. “We don’t know how resistance factors are transferred from the standpoint of the microbe population across species, and there is little direct evidence that the animal microbial population transfers to humans. Yet food animal products are given blame for humans’ antibiotic resistance.”

McVey has a research interest in molecular diagnostics and vaccinology associated with bacterial infections, with emphasis on bovine respiratory disease and mastitis. He says veterinarians are very conscious about using antibiotics and exercise prudent use.

“There are more antibiotic restrictions for food animals than any other use in veterinary medicine,” he says.

Veterinary Shortage

The perceived negativity of living in a rural community and practicing veterinary medicine on large animals has deterred some veterinary students from entering the food animal field, Iowa State’s Baker says.

“Animosity brews even in the veterinary schools, making those who decide to work toward practicing food animal medicine on the defensive with fellow students,” Baker says. “We talk about ‘One World health,’ but MDs largely don’t know what veterinarians do. Even colleagues in small-animal practices don’t know the challenges of food animal medicine.”

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the demand for food animal veterinarians to increase by 35 percent by 2016—from 62,000 full-time jobs to 84,000. As the human population rises, the worldwide demand for food from animals is expected to increase by 50 percent within 10 years, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

This increase will create more demand for large-animal veterinarians.

“One figure I’ve seen is that the U.S. could use three additional veterinary colleges, graduating 100 students annually to satisfy all areas of need in the profession,” Baker says.

“Right now there aren’t enough veterinarians in the food animal arena or in biodefense and safety. This lack of veterinarians makes us vulnerable to international, global and exotic diseases. Farces about the profession not only deter students from entering these areas of practice, it directly affects the country.”

Solutions

Instead of responding negatively or sitting idly, food animal vets say they will continue to be aggressive in their efforts to educate the public.

“We have to have our houses in order as food animal vets,” Weaver says.

“We can’t eradicate every negative circumstance, but those are uncommon actors and we can’t be characterized by those who abuse and neglect animals any longer. We have to let the public know that large-scale production farms can be a great place for cows to live. The challenge will be the method in which we use to debunk stereotypes and skeptics.”

Allowing the public to view farms in action, creating informative websites and taking charge of creating legislation to regulate animal production are all aspects that food animal veterinarians say they’d like to work on with producers. But they acknowledge that changing views will be a challenge.

“It’s easier to scare the public with a 30-second sound bite than it is to launch a campaign to educate them about the good things happening in animal production,” the AABP’s Riddell says. “We are at the point where there isn’t another option.”

This article first appeared in the February 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News.

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