With new proposals being floated in Washington, D.C., for a powerful new single federal agency to regulate food safety, a problem that’s heretofore remained largely undiscussed and unrecognized by the food and meat industries is emerging as a potential roadblock to food-safety reform. Namely, there aren’t enough livestock veterinarians – not enough to cover all the open meat-inspector positions, not enough to adequately monitor animal-handling practices at the nation’s hundreds of feedlots, auction yards and holding pens, and not enough to adequately minister to ailing livestock in the nation’s meat herds and fowl flocks.

Predictions estimate that demand for "food supply" veterinarians will increase 13 percent or more over the next eight years, but according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, every year sees a four-to-five percent shortfall in the number of livestock vets. Among graduates of the nation’s veterinary schools, AVMA estimates that just 10 percent choose to work with livestock.

"We’re trying to let people know about this issue," Michael San Filippo, an AVMA spokesman, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "It’s definitely getting attention in the profession." But he warns that "it could take something like another Hallmark-Westland crisis to really prove to the public that we don’t have enough livestock veterinarians to cover all the bases."

The AVMA believes the situation is critical enough to warrant an entire section on the association’s Web site --

http://www.avma.org/fsvm/default.asp . A series of maps in the section identifies the U.S. counties in which the vet shortage for food animals is most acute. In some major cattle counties in Nebraska, for example – McPherson, Logan, Sherman – there are hardly any livestock vets at all.

San Filippo attributes the decline to a couple of factors. "A lot of college kids in vet school just aren’t familiar with food animals," he said. "Fewer and fewer kids are growing up on farms. Most students in vet schools know veterinarians from the vet who took care of their dog or cat." The AVMA spokesman also noted that the growing concentration of the cattle and hog industries into high-capacity production farms and feedlots further cuts into the numbers of potential livestock vet students. "No one grows up in a feedlot," he said.

AVMA, together with several other veterinary organizations such as the American Association of Bovine Practioners and American Association of Swine Veterinarians, formed the Food Supply Veterinary Medicine Coalition to develop tools to deal with the shortage. The coalition issued a comprehensive 22-chapter report in May of 2006 filled with estimates of future demand on a species-by-species basis, future shortages (again on a species-by-species basis), as well as with recommendations for solutions. The latter include stronger efforts by veterinary schools to encourage students to enter the livestock and food-animal field, and student-debt-forgiveness programs given to students who choose to work as livestock veterinarians where the shortage is greatest.

"We’re also encouraging AVMA’s members and, especially, our leadership to be very active recruiters," San Filippo told MEATPOULTRY.com. "These kinds of vets fill a very vital need."