Veterinarians know best

When the Food and Drug Administration issued guidance intended to reduce bacterial resistance by restricting antibiotics used in livestock to treatment purposes only, it waded into a debate on the scientific rationale for such a decision. This proposal, and others intended to modify animal agriculture, highlight an important group of people from whom we have heard far too little on issues they know best — our veterinarians. 

Talk of revamping agriculture with respect to food safety, animal welfare and the recent proposal issued by the FDA, has me concerned that some of the most qualified individuals in these areas might not have been sufficiently consulted. We can all agree that important decisions should be made based on sound science and substantial evidence. Scientific knowledge, while not infallible, can help us identify objective measures of food safety, animal welfare and the appropriate uses for antibiotics and apply those practices to our farms. With advanced training in veterinarian medicine and daily work with these issues on a personal level, veterinarians should be one of our first consultants.

These veterinarians, both in the research lab and in the field, provide us with front-line insight on how changes made in policy can directly affect agriculture, which employs and feeds millions of Americans.  

As the Chairman of the Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over animal welfare issues, the humane treatment of animals used to produce our nation’s food is of the utmost concern to me. To make certain they receive appropriate treatment and living conditions, we must consult both scientific evidence and those who understand the needs of animals by virtue and practice.

Veterinarians are trained to know how animals should be cared for in ways that minimize fear, pain, stress and suffering. Each animal has a unique set of ideal living conditions, treatment techniques and nutritional needs. As a society, veterinarians are those we trust to ensure that farm animals are treated with careful consideration of their species biology and behavior. When proposing changes to animal conditions and treatment, it is important that we seek the council of these animal practitioners in order to see the overall picture clearly and scientifically.

In addition to ensuring our livestock is treated in a humane way, veterinarians have an important responsibility to prevent contamination from bacteria and diseases. In a world of rapid trade, food animal veterinarians serve a crucial role in protecting our country from serious foodborne illness, biological hazards and pathogens. Veterinarians work to curb bacterial infections and diagnose conditions such as foot and mouth disease and avian flu before they become a threat. Having someone in the field to monitor these dangers is critical for our safety in a world of global trade and constant trading of food and animals over incredible distances.

What worries me greatly is that our nation is in dire need of additional veterinarians to provide us with this undeniably vital service. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has found several, vast regions of the country that currently lack sufficient food animal veterinarians. Throughout the center of the country, from Texas to North Dakota, numerous counties lack a single food animal veterinarian despite having more than 25,000 animals. Some areas have much more than 100,000 animals with no food animal veterinarian nearby. Without a serious endeavor to train more large animal veterinarians, the country could be in a position where dangerous pathogens and diseases go unchecked, leading to major food safety hazards. 

Food safety scares both with respect to domestic and imported goods have caused us to take a closer look at our food supply and its connection to our own health and security. FDA’s draft guidance released June 28 recommends the use of antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals be limited to uses deemed necessary for the assurance of animal health. Without question, it is imperative we work to preserve the effectiveness of antimicrobial drugs and to reduce the misuse of them. However, shifting our entire animal health system from a preventative to a treatment-based approach is not a minor task and could have very serious consequences. I worry this proposal was created without conducting proper research and consultation in order to understand how, particularly in the agricultural sector, the safety and security of our food would change because of this proposal.

It is time we work toward developing the tools we have to ensure food safety and security, and start listening to the experts in the field before making sudden policy decisions. We need to increase our arsenal of food animal veterinarians and experts in the field to help us keep America’s food system the safest in the world. Without first consulting our trained veterinarian medical professionals, we are prematurely proposing strategies which might only exacerbate the problem. We need a more thorough understanding of the challenges we face and of the solutions we are proposing. This understanding can only be obtained through discussion with the expert voices who know these issues forward and backward to help us find the right response to these dilemmas.

Rep. Scott is chairman of the Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over animal welfare issues.