Vets role may shift to food watchdog

12 October 2001

Vets role may shift to food watchdog

VETS could be hoping to carve a new role for themselves as farm auditors, to ensure customer demands for safe food are met on-farm, while improving animal productivity and profitability.

As farm incomes fall, vets are also feeling the pinch as their services are increasingly seen as a variable cost which can be removed. This is forcing the profession to ask where their future role and financial security lies.

According to Devon large animal vet, Dick Sibley, vets must play an increasing role in ensuring food is produced to meet consumer demands.

Throughout the food chain, from farm to fork, production is regulated to allay consumer concerns and Mr Sibley believes vet checks on-farm would offer assurances of quality and safety of food.

"Consumers want safe, wholesome food produced by acceptable methods, which includes healthy and well-cared for animals."

"As a profession, our obligation is to ensure the health and welfare of animals, to maintain the productivity and profitability of farming enterprises – which drives vet practices – and finally to the consumer," he said.

He believes introducing vet health plans, such as in the National Scheme for Dairy Quality Assurance, and having them recognised by quality assurance schemes, would also benefit producers.

"Healthy animals are more productive, so moving an average herd into the top 25% in terms of disease control will be economically beneficial to producers. Offering consumers guarantees about how food is produced will also add value to products.

"We have to prove vet intervention on-farm is good value, not just added cost, and assures the quality and safety of food."

Speaking for major retailers Martin Cooke, Tesco divisional technical manager, told delegates: "There is only one voice you should ever listen to – the customer." Hence the company requires assurance of standards, which customers demand. "Routine vet supervision gives us assurances stock have appropriate health care."

Mr Sibley believes the British Vet Association should push for compulsory vet health plans on every farm as a condition for a licence to produce food for human consumption.

"Health plans will not only assure animal health and welfare, but also bio-security and food safety. Vet health plans will end up as an auditable document which enforcement agencies can use to assess whether on-farm standards are in place and working."

Mr Sibley said the BVA would play a crucial role in creating practical, effective and useful legislation to meet consumer demands and avoid damage to producer competitiveness, he added. "Some current standards are difficult for producers to meet, as some demands are impossible, such as eradication of E coli 0157, or unreasonable – hanging flower baskets – or are unenforceable, including BSE controls."

Producers will need incentives to reach standards, he added. "It wasnt until there was a financial incentive from milk companies to reduce cell counts in milk that progress was made to reduce mastitis in cows."

It is also essential that production standards receive full recognition from government, retailers, processors and consumers alike, which in part means food choices made on quality assurance rather than price. "Legislation and standards are worth nothing to producers while cheap import are flooding the shelves. Protection of consumers requires protection of producers," he adds.

However, Neil Cutler, NFUs head of animal health and welfare was less enthusiastic about Mr Sibleys ideas. "With economic returns at rock bottom, anything which involves investment, such as vet health plans, are generally treated with a lack of enthusiasm by producers, even when they recognise the need for it.

"Producer resentment will build if the vet health plan scheme becomes compulsory on farms, as they will not want to be forced to pay for this service, unless they see some value in it. Vets are suppliers of goods and services, so they have to market themselves more effectively and sell their service to producers."

"Making vet training less rigid and allowing specialists to emerge will improve the service to producers," he added.


Quality assurance for conumers.

Added cost or added value?

Compulsory part of licence?

Added cost or added value? Vet health plans will benefit producers and meet consumer demands, says Dick Sibley.


&#8226 Quality assurance for consumers.

&#8226 Added cost or added value?

&#8226 Compulsory part of licence?

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