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Are Pet Food Companies Trying to Buy Vets’ Influence?

As if it weren't bad enough that veterinary students are graduating with mountains of debt and historically poor job prospects, a recent piece in the...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Feb 24th 2012

As if it weren’t bad enough that veterinary students are graduating with mountains of debt and historically poor job prospects, a recent piece in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) has raised another concern. Those same impoverished students may be the subject of manipulation by pharmaceutical and pet food companies.

Vested interests worm their ways into many aspects of life. The USDA was famously blocked from improving school lunch standards (so that, for instance, tomato paste on pizzas would not be considered a vegetable) by members of Congress, who were heavily lobbied by frozen food manufacturers and other special interests.

Nobody expects members of Congress to be able to resist lobbyists, or to be good for anything at all. But you’d hope that your physician or veterinarian would be above the influence of vested interests that could lead to clinicians placing their patients’ interests below those of pharmaceutical or, in the case of veterinary medicine, pet food companies.

Sadly, physicians and veterinarians are human, and there is evidence that some among them are not above the often subconscious influence of corporate interests. I suspect that physicians may actually be more prone to corporate influence than veterinarians, for the simple reason that a golf junket in the Caribbean is more influential than a medium pepperoni pizza. But this space is not about those lucky physicians who go to the Caribbean for free.

On the first day of veterinary school, I remember a number of corporations, many of which were unfamiliar to me, and many of which no longer exist (case in point: Waltham) recruiting fellow students to be their representatives. I never served as a rep, so I don’t know the terms that my classmates accepted. However, I do know that they were tasked with plumping, not always very convincingly — I think a lot of them just wanted the money — for their companies.

The budgets were small. There were no junkets. I received one bag of Iams cat food each month for a year or two. The companies frequently bought pizzas for student meetings, and I ate my share. Corporate logos adorned many of the T-shirts we sported in the late ’90s. To me, it seemed a farce — surely nobody could be influenced by a pizza, a T-shirt, or a bag of cat food? (For instance, I have never actually purchased a bag of Iams, nor do I recommend Iams over other brands of pet food.)

But some people, as noted in the article, have expressed deeper concerns. Might lecturers on dietary treatments for diseases mention only one brand of foods? Might respected clinicians whose research is funded by a pharmaceutical company present that same company in an extraordinarily favorable light to impressionable students?

Some veterinary schools, including my alma mater UC Davis, are taking steps to limit the amount of schwag and freebies that corporations can bestow on students. The Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) has formed a task force to study the matter.

Nobody can quantify the extent to which corporate influence on veterinary education is affecting the way that average veterinarians practice their trade. I personally believe that the influence is not great, and I have no particular loyalties to any brands. I’d like to think that I’m above the influence, but then again, no company has ever tried to take me on a serious junket*.

The paper discussed in this story is Larkin, M. Learning under the influence. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2011;239:1150-1154.

*Full disclosure: I did once receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Dayton, Ohio, from the Iams Corporation. If you think that is a serious junket, please contact me immediately to discuss a real estate venture involving a bridge linking Brooklyn to Manhattan.