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.
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.