The growing shortage of food-animal veterinarians is one of those issues that hits the meat and poultry industry both directly and indirectly. Indirectly, because as a general rule, processors do not employ veterinarians (with the notable exception of packers that own and raise their own livestock or birds). Directly, because veterinarians stand on the front lines of food safety.

As study after study has shown, diseased, stressed and/or abused animals are more susceptible not just to other livestock diseases but also to pathogenic contamination. Moreover, not only can veterinarians help stamp out the crime, both civil and moral, of livestock abuse once and for all, they can offer the industry some informed defense against accusations made against it by vegan-agenda groups.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, which tracks the numbers, notes that the number of vet-school graduates has been stagnant, at about 2,600 per year, for 10 years. The bad news is that just 200 of those graduates choose to specialize in food animals. "The number of new food-animal veterinarians isn’t growing at a pace the meat industry needs or to pick up the slack left by retiring veterinarians," an AVMA, David Kirkpatrick, told me. He noted that when the numbers are parsed according to age, the picture grows even more dismal: of young veterinarians 30 years old and younger, just 4.4% have food-animal practices, and just 7.4% of vets aged 31-35 do. At the other end, half of all food-animal veterinarians are aged 51 or older. Sometime soon, the shortage will become acute.

"Most of the public doesn’t realize that veterinarians are critically important to the quality of food," Kirkpatrick comments. "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."

Kirkpatrick thinks the declining interest in food animals by veterinary students is a result of fewer kids growing up on farms. That’s not something the industry can do much about, but the good news is that this is a crisis the industry can still alleviate. Packers, processors and their trade associations can sponsor scholarships at veterinary schools – some producer groups already do – and internships at companies. They can also provide some helpful debt relief: according to the AVMA, the average debt burden on a new veterinarian after four years of undergraduate study and four years of vet school is $130,000. Another great help would be language classes sponsored by the industry so newly graduated food-animal veterinarians are fluent in the hands-on language of food safety and the stockyard, which is increasingly Spanish.

Being a food-animal veterinarian is an attractive profession. These vets tend to make more money than other types of vets – AVMA says first-year food-animal veterinarians pull down an average $73,100 a year, which is $4,000 a year more than first-year companion-animal veterinarians – and they typically live and practice in the rural peace and quiet. Perhaps most important, being a veterinarian is one of those rare professions that’s largely protected from cynicism. "Certainly, no one gets into this to get rich," Kirkpatrick told me. "They get into it because they love animals." And love for animals, including animals that must eventually become food, tends not to diminish over time.

Understandably, meat and poultry packers and processors think about meat and poultry science whenever they think of funding programs at universities and agricultural schools, and the industry surely should not decrease its support of such programs. But it should not leave out veterinary programs, either. A food-animal veterinarian is every bit as important to the industry’s function and reputation, and much more important to the welfare of our livestock, as the best and brightest meat-science student.