A quiet crisis stalks the American meat, poultry and livestock industries. It’s not often addressed at gatherings of producers and has never been addressed at meat and poultry industry conventions. Yet, its consequences could be devastating.

The number of food-animal veterinarians is shrinking. There aren’t enough to serve present needs, and as older veterinarians retire – approximately half of all practicing food-animal vets are 51 years old or older – the crisis will grow more acute. Just 4.4% of food-animal veterinarians are 30 years old or younger, 7.4% are in the 31-35 age range and 10.8% are in the 36-40 range.

These figures come from the American Veterinary Medical Association, which represents the broad range of vets, from companion-animal practitioners to large-animal doctors. David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the group, told MEATPOULTRY.com that just 200 new food-animal veterinarians are graduated from the nation’s veterinary schools every year. That’s out of 2,600 total veterinary graduates.

"Most of the public doesn’t realize that veterinarians are critically important to the quality of food," he said. "And not just food quality – without enough food-animal veterinarians, the odds of problems with zoonotic diseases" – diseases that migrate from animal to human, including various types of flu as well as bovine spongiform encephalopathy ["mad cow disease"] – "increases. We could see huge economic consequences if we don’t have enough veterinarians to help control these diseases."

In September, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE) introduced the Veterinarian Services Investment Act, legislation that would authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to award competitive grants to help develop, implement and sustain veterinary services, especially in under-served and/or rural areas. According to a statement made by Smith, the grants may be used to support a wide array of activities based on the needs of an area, including: veterinarian and veterinary technician recruitment; expanding and establishing practices in high-need areas; surveillance of food-animal disease and the utilization of veterinary services; establishing mobile/portable clinics and "tele-vet" services; and accredited veterinary education programs, including continuing education, distance education and faculty recruitment. "Our nation faces major challenges to relieve veterinary shortages and to enhance the professional lives of veterinarians in both rural and urban areas," stated Smith, who noted that his district ranks first in commercial red-meat production in the U.S., yet in Cherry County, Neb., there is but one veterinarian available for every 145,000 food animals. "Improving the well-being of food animals and the agriculture producers who rely on large animal veterinarians for their economy well-being is one of my priorities."

Kirkpatrick told MEATPOULTRY.com that he believes one important reason why fewer young people are going into the food-animal veterinary field is due to fewer young people than ever in America growing up on farms. Companion-animal medicine attracts 77% of vet-school graduates. Another issue: to become a practicing veterinarian requires four years of undergraduate work plus four years of graduate study at a veterinary school (the same requirement to become a medical doctor). According to AVMA, the average debt carried by a graduating veterinary student is $130,000, with 96% of that incurred during the vet-school years.

At the same time, the shortage of food-animal veterinarians guarantees that graduate a job, and AVMA surveys show that first-year food-animal vet graduates make an average salary of $72,100 compared to $63,000 for mixed-practice vets and $69,100 for companion-animal-exclusive first-year veterinarians. "Certainly, no one gets into this to get rich," Kirkpatrick said. "They get into it because they love animals."

He said the livestock industry has already established some partnerships with veterinary schools, and that further help from the livestock and meat industries could come in the forms of internships, scholarships and even debt-relief for graduating students. "A lot of people don’t know that veterinarians even exist for livestock-production facilities," he commented. "One thing that would really help is if the industry opened its doors to any kid showing an interest in becoming a food-animal veterinarian, to give that kid a ‘day on the farm,’ so to speak."