Beyond the farm gate – Do vets have a role across the food chain?

Javier Dominguez Orive is the Food Standard Agency’s Veterinary Director and Head of Foodborne Diseases Control Unit.

We are used to seeing veterinary surgeons in their clinical role taking care of pets as well as large animals on the farm and in zoos, but can vets add value to society outside of a clinical setting?  Should they get involved, beyond the farm gate, for example, working in the food processing industry, for retailers, or for the Government leading on food safety policies? And if they do, despite these roles being important, will they feel as valued as other veterinary surgeons working in clinical practice?

It’s important to remember that the farming industry exists because production animals will become food at some point. The health and welfare of livestock is not only key to good productivity but also for the production of safe and good quality animal products. Yet there are constant threats to this. Zoonotic diseases, for instance, are common and can be caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites or fungi. Scientists estimate that more than six out of every 10 infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals. Live animals, either directly or through vectors, and their products could be a route of transmission for many diseases.

And it is veterinary surgeons who are best placed, with our understanding of animal physiology, health and production, to help prevent and control these diseases by maintaining high standards of food and animals safety.

javier_dominguez_orive

Javier Dominguez Orive

My impression is that the role of a vet working outside clinical practice is widely accepted, valued and recognised in other parts of the world, including continental Europe. In Spain, where I trained and worked for many years, all veterinary schools’ Latin motto is “Higia Pecoris Salus Populi” – “Healthy Livestock – Healthy People” – the traditional one health concept. This concept is strongly embedded in the veterinary surgeon’s education in continental Europe, USA, South America, Australia, and gives vets an advantage over their UK counterparts to extend their knowledge in, for instance, the controls maintaining food quality and safety. It is widely accepted and encouraged in these regions that many veterinary graduates will pursue a career outside clinical practice. And because our skills are perfectly transferable, in other parts of the world vets are also involved in foodstuffs of non-animal origin, such as fresh produce, fruits, etc.  The principles to managing food safety risks for food of animal origin are identical to those for the production of salads or bottled water.

But is this widely accepted here in the United Kingdom?

Are we preparing the new generation of vets for these potential roles? Or are we creating yet another generation of veterinary surgeons who won’t consider these careers because they will be viewed as ‘second class vets’?

And what about vets involved in delivering official food controls, or working in developing food safety policies in government? Vets not only have the ability and skills to develop and negotiate legislation affecting farmers and the food industry, but their deep understanding of animal husbandry and production, as well as animal health and welfare, can play an essential role in crafting effective regulation. But again vets may not see these roles as suitable career choices because they’ll probably be viewed as ‘third class vets’?

With the speed that new veterinary schools keep opening in the UK, there is a risk that in the near future clinical practice won’t be able to sustain so many new graduates and as a consequence they will have to look elsewhere for work. If there’s already concern that too many vets today see non-clinical jobs negatively, are we doing enough to ensure the next generation of vets feel otherwise?

We need to do more to inform and expose undergraduates to other job opportunities and give them the confidence to explore alternative careers options outside of clinical practice.

Do you agree? Should we do more to inform and expose undergraduates to other job opportunities? Should we be encouraging them to think more constructively about careers outside of clinical practice? Or is the status quo where we want to remain?


Javier Dominguez Orive is the Food Standard Agency’s Veterinary Director and Head of Foodborne Diseases Control Unit. He trained in Spain and has worked in Veterinary Public Health in Peru, as a microbiologist at the University of Gent, Belgium, and in 1999 moved to the UK to work as an Official Veterinarian.

Read more about Javier Dominguez Orive →

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of either the RCVS or the BVA.

10 comments
  1. Juan Castello
    Juan Castello says:

    I totally agree with Javier’s comments in this report.
    The vets coming out from the Veterinary schools have the knowledge, capabilities and skills to work in a much greater range of works that they are doing at the moment.
    I also beleive food safety policy and food safety issues are really important areas embedded in our society, which we can use to improve public health, animal welfare and, ultimately, animal health. Therefore, the furure vets should feel proud to work in this areas and not considered themselves second or third class vets.

    Reply
  2. Ben Huntington
    Ben Huntington says:

    Very well put Javier. I think vet schools must take responsibility to ensure their graduates are prepared for roles outside of clinical practice, otherwise they will be failing the future of the profession by training increased numbers of young vets for clinical roles that do not exist. We in industry, government and NGOs must do more to promote the other options available to graduate vets, so I applaud your contribution here.

    Reply
  3. Laureano Garcia-Munoz
    Laureano Garcia-Munoz says:

    Many thanks for this article, Javier. It summarises quite well the situation and the feelings of many of us. I am probably one of those “rara avis” that since graduating as a veterinarian wanted to work in public health. When arriving to the UK, well over 17 years ago now, it was a bit of a surprise to see in the UK the little interest of veterinarians in public health. Things have changed little since, but it is never too late! That can only benefit the veterinary profession as a whole.

    Reply
  4. Raquel Luque
    Raquel Luque says:

    I strongly agree with all the comments above but I must admit that there is a huge obstacle to overcome, society perception. When I first started working as an Official Veterinarian I would tell anyone who asked me what I was doing for living. And it was quite shocking to observe how their faces would go from deep respect , when they learnt I was a vet, to a mixture of surprise and horror as I told them I worked in abattoirs supervising hygiene and animal welfare.

    Reply
  5. Cheryl Scudamore
    Cheryl Scudamore says:

    A great article and equally applicable to those who work in associated areas eg surveillance pathology. The same points also extend to some extent to those of us working in pathology and research in non clinical (non farm animal) areas. The need for more careers advice at vet schools and even before prospective students apply to vet schools is crucial to a sustainable future for the veterinary profession as a whole.

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  6. Nicolette
    Nicolette says:

    I think we should absolutely be marketing veterinarians as one of the key professions responsible for public health in the one-health world. With training in human public health, a veterinarian has the best perspective to put the entire picture together. This can be in food – conception to consumption – in identification and containing emergent diseases, and in disaster control and relief. I am sure you can add to this list. Even though I am a feline only veterinarian, I wish to avoid the specialist fluffy impression of veterinarians as pet pediatricians only. Whilst fixing a broken leg may be cool, it is just as cool to prevent human and livestock death – once you explain to people just what can be achieved by veterinarians in public health, and how veterinarians can change the quality of so many lives, they get it. But we need to be doing the explaining. Step forward and tell people what you do!

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  7. Steve Pointing
    Steve Pointing says:

    Interestingly 3 out of the 4 responses are from Spanish vets as is the main article itself. The issue of poor veterinary participation in the food industry in the UK goes back a long way and has arisen because of how the food safety industry was set up in the UK as opposed to our continental neighbours. Historically food safety in the UK was the responsibility of environmental health officers and these were the people who worked in abattoirs alongside meat inspectors. The European approach to food safety and hygiene developed in a different way and, as with so many other aspects of integrating into the EU, it has taken the British quite a long time to make the necessary adjustments. Public health was certainly not treated as a high priority subject when I was going through vet school (many years ago now) and I am not sure that it is treated massively differently today.

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  8. Laura
    Laura says:

    I totally agree with Nicolette and Steve comments but I also feel that to make sure the next generation of vets see food safety and meat hygiene more appealing, we have to make these positions better paid. In Italy, we take public health very seriously and this is reflected in the fact that vets working in slaughterhouses are directly employed by the government and the ministry of health. Also, we need to educate the general society to the different roles of vets outside the clinics, show what they do in disease surveillance, in checking animal food products and the health and welfare of live animals. This can be done with documentaries in television for example, to reach everybody: there is a need to change the society general view of the vet before expecting that prospect veterinarians accept that working outside the practice is as cool as fixing a dog leg.

    Reply
  9. Fiona McEwen
    Fiona McEwen says:

    Speaking as a vet who works in non-veterinary research I would say that we definitely don’t highlight the range of career options available to vets. A veterinary degree can be the route into multiple different areas of science – I did an intercalated degree in Neuroscience, an MSc in Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry, a PhD in Psychology, and now work in autism research – but I don’t think that research careers (especially those outside of veterinary clinical research) are even on the radar for most vets. There seemed to very little exposure to research at vet school, either in lectures or through research placements. While there is obviously a lot to cram into the curriculum as it is, a shift from a focus on what we know to how we know those things would have the benefit of perhaps igniting an interest in research in some students and producing vets who are better prepared to approach clinical practice in a more critical way. Perhaps these changes are happening already, but I can certainly recall various conversations with colleagues who were disenchanted with clinical practice but who really had no idea about what other options might be open to them. Perhaps we need to shift away from seeing a veterinary education in a narrow vocational way, to an education that can open many doors in many different arenas.

    Reply
  10. Maria Calancha
    Maria Calancha says:

    Great article, Javier. I totally agree with you. Many of us are already working and adding value to the Food Industry.
    After 11 years working in the UK, 7 of them in the Food Industry, I still get raised eyebrows and surprise when I let my stakeholders know that I’m a vet.
    I would love to see more vets joining the Food Industry in the near future.

    Reply

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