Rural veterinary services are suffering more than ever. We must do better for our small towns – How about hiring rural vets for USDA meat inspection?
Rural veterinary services are suffering more than ever. We must do better for our small towns.
JULY 21, 2023
(John Moore/Getty Images)
Farmers and ranchers have long sounded the alarm about the shortage of rural veterinarians. Now, the issue is worse than ever. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 500 counties in 46 states face a critical shortage of veterinarians. The vast majority of these counties are in rural America, several of which are here in Nebraska.
Large-animal veterinary services have suffered in particular, causing farmers and ranchers to lose livestock due to a lack of availability for care. Apart from the heartache of losing these animals to preventable causes, the monetary loss and resulting economic impact is immense. We must do more to ensure that critical veterinary services are available in every county in this country.
According to the USDA, fewer than 6% of private veterinary practices nationwide offer services for large animals. This is partly due to the fact that fewer graduates choose to serve in a rural practice. Like all of us, veterinarians need a viable livelihood, which has become increasingly difficult in rural communities. As the livestock market becomes more consolidated, farmers and ranchers have found themselves unable to sustain herds. The density of livestock has decreased in several areas and has become centered around large agricultural operations. With this consolidation, veterinarians have experienced difficulties running financially sustainable practices.
Student loan debt also plagues many graduates of veterinary schools. According to data from 2021 published by the American Veterinary Medicine Association, an average veterinary school graduate with debt owes $186,430 in student loans, a figure that has risen markedly over the past decade even after adjustment for inflation. More than 20% of graduates owe more than $200,000 upon graduation. Rural veterinarians earn only about half of what they could make in an urban practice, in exchange for longer working hours and answering a greater number of urgent calls.
The increased demand for veterinarians for companion animals following the pandemic (when people around the country acquired a vast number of new pets) has only exacerbated this divide. Existing loan forgiveness programs from the USDA are very difficult to navigate. Veterinarians who receive debt-repayment awards are currently taxed on the value of the award, though the USDA does try to cover this cost. Inexplicably, our congressional representatives have been unable to pass the bipartisan Veterinary Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (which would rightfully eliminate this tax), allowing our communities to suffer as a result.
Lastly, careers in rural veterinary practice are taking an incredible toll on our veterinarians. These careers are exhausting, financially difficult and sometimes dangerous. The suicide rate for veterinarians has reached alarming heights, with the American Veterinary Medicine Association reporting that one in six veterinarians have thought about suicide and that veterinarians are 2.7 times more likely to commit suicide than the general public. This is unacceptable. These professionals are a key component of keeping our country’s food supply consistent, available, and safe from the outbreak of dangerous diseases.
Rural veterinarians are a foundational component of small-town Nebraska and small-town America. We need them for our communities to thrive. We have allowed them to suffer for too long and have not given them the support that they need to fulfill a critical role in our society. Meatpacking companies are making record profits, yet a crucial part of the animal supply chain (and one which is critical for the general public’s safety) is in a tailspin. It is time for the major meatpacking companies, state governments and the federal government to make an investment in our hardworking veterinarians.
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Madhav Narayan, M.D., is a rural physician in Fairbury, Nebraska. He graduated from the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He is interested in highlighting underdiscussed issues that are of critical importance to communities in Nebraska.
Rural vet clinics would be perfect for new local/regional inspection personnel:
We could employ rural veterinarians and vet techs as meat inspectors under the Talmadge-Aiken Act. This would save USDA a lot of money and provide inspection by professionals that live in the communities where full-time, and especially less than full-time inspection is needed. There is dire need to rebuild our local/regional foods systems, especially around meat processing. Consumers would have access to better quality, locally produced meat. Animals would avoid the stress of long distance travel to big slaughter houses. The economic benefits of more of the food dollar remaining in farming and ranching communities would be substantial.
Many veterinary clinics have too much work for one vet, but not enough for two. Inspection duties could mean better job opportunities for veterinarians and many more jobs for packing plant and related industry workers.
The vet schools (CSU) might like the idea of adding a potentially valuable meat inspection credit as part of the vet school curriculum.
USDA hasn’t liked the idea due to the deeply embedded mission to put small plants out of business in favor of their bosses, the big meat packers.
I would estimate that USDA, under the current onerous and ineffective rules of HACCP and confrontational inspectors, increases the small plants costs by 30% or more.
I currently have an inspector that travels over 300 miles one-way to provide inspection in St. Francis.