James Herriot, we need you


How would you like to be a doctor with 37,000 patients? If you're the lone veterinarian in Washington's Adams County who treats food animals, that's how many cows, sheep and pigs await your attention. A fall 2007 survey showed that many counties don't have even a single vet trained to treat livestock. Three-quarters of newly-trained vets specialize in companion animals (dogs and cats), and the few practicing large-animal vets are starting to retire in droves.

The shortage is most acute in Midwestern farm states, but every Western state except Wyoming has at least one county with more than 5,000 food animals and zero large-animal vets. New Mexico and Montana are worst off, with at least five counties that have more than 25,000 food animals and no vets.  And that's risky for public health and for food safety, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. The Billings Gazette reports:

In February, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that vet shortages in key public- health areas like the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service had been ignored and that a graying federal work force was about to make matters worse. FSIS is the agency charged with preventing diseased animals from being slaughtered and packaged for sale.

... The GAO concluded that federal food safety agencies didn't know if they had enough veterinarians to handle a major disease outbreak like bird flu with potentially fatal consequences for people. It was recommended in 2004 that agencies assess their preparedness for an animal disease disaster. None had done so by the 2009 report.

So, if you've ever wanted to make less than $40,000 a year, work 60 hours a week, drive 50 miles between clients, and learn new uses for Ajax dish soap and tree-trimming shears, food-supply veterinary medicine could be for you. But the mere thought of such work makes most of us bless our desk jobs -- even as we fear the next outbreak of mad cow disease.

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