Since the day I started vet school in 1996 I have not enjoyed one week that was free from someone complaining about a shortage of food animal vets. Over the years the supposed consequences of this supposed shortage have evolved. Initially there was going to be a plague of exotic diseases striking the livestock of America. Then there was going to be a rash of people getting sick from unhealthy food. Now we are at risk from terrorists who will target our food supply.
Veterinary journals, newspapers, congressmen, vet school faculty, and farmers continuously wring their hands and pull their hair over this matter. Panels of experts and sub-subcommittees of congress regularly convene to discuss (but not address) the problem. Here is a quote from the article on the matter du jour.
National studies suggest there is an increasing shortage of veterinarians, especially those who treat large animals.
Dr. Donna Anagarano, associate dean for academic affairs at Auburn University School of Veterinary Medicine, said the shortages in these areas are only going to become more pronounced.
I fully recognize the importance of food animal vets. They do help to protect livestock from exotic diseases. They do protect the safety of food. They do help guard the food supply against terrorism. And they are in short supply.
But we are not facing a crisis. The shortage of food animal vets can be corrected easily. The real issue is that few people seem willing to do the one thing that actually will solve the problem (more on that in a moment).
The solutions that I have seen proffered so far include acts of congress that encourage vets students to move into food animal medicine, building new vet schools, and student debt forgiveness for vets who move to the country to treat cows and pigs. These haven’t made a dent in the problem.
Let’s look into this shortage a bit further. There are several reasons why vets don’t want to go into food animal medicine. First, food animals live in the country. Americans in general, and not just veterinarians, are abandoning the countryside in droves.
Second, veterinarians’ attitudes towards their patients are changing along with Americans’ attitudes toward farm animal welfare. Many young vets these days aren’t so keen working with animals that are going to be slaughtered anyway. And food animal medicine can be very unsavory for vets who care about animal suffering. I will never forget a case from vet school. A miserably sick cow was in the teaching barn on a cold night. The owner decided to slaughter, rather than treat her. The animal could not be taken to slaughter until the morning. Because she was destined for human dinner tables she could not receive any medications (such as pain killers) that might leave residues in the meat. The result: she bellowed in agony all night long. I (and several of my classmates) walked out of that barn in disgust and vowed never again to work on food animals.
So let’s take it for granted that food animal medicine is, relative to other fields in veterinary medicine, an unsavory job. There are plenty of unsavory jobs in this world. Who wants to be a garbage man or a sewer maintenance technician? Nobody. But to my knowledge there is no shortage of garbage men in America. Why? Because they get paid well.
This brings us to the embarrassingly simple solution to the food animal vet shortage: pay them more.
On this front, there is some good news: the problem may be about to correct itself. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, new vet school graduates focusing in food animal medicine now can expect higher salaries than other vets.
First year graduates practicing exclusively food animal medicine earn, on average, $72,318. First year vets who focus predominantly on food animal medicine earn $63,712. First year vets who, as I did ten years ago, choose to focus exclusively on companion animals earn $69,154.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that in 2007 the average garbage man in Oakland, California made between $65,000 and $75,000.
Vets (and congresspeople) aren’t big on economics or business sense, but the first page of every economics textbook discusses the law of supply and demand (link provided for vets and congresspeople who might be reading). In a capitalist society shortages of any product, commodity or service (including food animal veterinary care) generally are solved by market forces.
Ask a child what she wants to be when she grows up and you’ve got a 50-50 chance she’ll say veterinarian. Not a lot of kids want to be lawyers when they grow up. Yet if you listen to the media we have a shortage of vets and an overabundance of attorneys. In 2007 the average starting salary of an attorney at a big firm in a big city ranged from $145,000 to $160,000. Could it be any simpler?
When the average starting salary of a food animal vet is $160,000 there will be no shortage of food animal vets.
What will it take to pay first year food animal vets $160,000? The price of meat will have to go up. That won’t make people happy, but it’s the only way the problem will be solved.