It’s lunchtime and you’re starved. Could eat a cow. Well, maybe a hamburger. Better yet a cheeseburger with lots of fried onions.
As you savor the freshly made burger and finish it off with some cold milk, you might want to tip your glass in a toast to the many veterinarians dedicated to making sure that the meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs and milk you consume come from healthy animals and are free of pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses. It’s these veterinarians who are linked together in an important chain that extends from “farm to fork.”
Today, Jan. 24, as you toast these veterinarians, you’ll be among the many people celebrating “World Veterinary Year,” which is holding its opening ceremony in Versailles, France.
The occasion highlights the founding of the world’s first veterinary school in Lyon, France, in 1761 by French veterinarian Claude Bourgelat. Counting the years forward, 2011 marks the 250th world anniversary of the veterinary school and therefore the 250th anniversary of the veterinary profession, which has been so important to the health of animals and humans alike.
That first vet school and another one that opened 3 years later in Alfort, France, also begun by Bourgelat, were founded at the request of Louis XV, who wanted veterinarians to receive the necessary training to help farmers improve the health of their cattle.
News of the success of the new graduates in achieving that goal quickly spread to other countries, and before long, veterinary schools based on the same model opened in Germany, England and other European countries.
Historically, all of this was before the advent of the stethoscope, the hypodermic syringe, and anesthesia–and certainly long before scientists had strong enough microscopes to identify foodborne pathogens such as E. col O157:H7, Salmonella and Listeria.
Nowadays when many people think about livestock veterinarians, they conjure up images of a veterinarian out on a farm treating cows or other animals. But using a hamburger as an example, veterinarian Tom Besser, a Washington State University researcher who specializes in foodborne diseases, said that’s just part of the story.
Taking a step back from a hamburger served in a restaurant, Besser said that Food Safety Inspection Service veterinarians in USDA-certified slaughter facilities (where almost all of the hamburger sold in the United States is produced), are inspecting each and every animal before it’s slaughtered. They’re are also there inspecting the carcasses and the animal organs after the animals have been slaughtered.
In addition, numerous test samples of hamburger are taken and sent to labs to see if any of them test positive for foodborne pathogens.
Originally, veterinarians were dispatched to slaughter facilities to check on two once common diseases: bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, both which can infect humans. Thanks in large part to vaccines, those two diseases are almost non-existent.
But now there are what Besser refers to as “more insidious problems”–microscopic bugs such as E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter and other foodborne pathogens that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Because of that, microbiological testing must be done on the meat and the ground beef.
Besser believes that because the processing plants have put in so many safeguards against the pathogens, it’s time to start looking at controlling the pathogens on the farm and in the feedlots.
“That’s where I think we need to be working now,” he said.
That goes along with the Food Safety Inspection Service’s goals announced last May, which, among others, includes an emphasis on pre-slaughter interventions for beef in 2011.
As part of those pre-slaughter interventions, the agency recommends testing of cattle as well as water in holding pens.
Even so, while many of those interventions, such as putting chlorine in stockwater, keeping animal pens clean, and providing more space for the animals can help reduce E. coli shedding (in the manure), they don’t entirely eliminate it in the animals.
Because E. coli O157:H7 can contaminate water and survive there for a long time, Besser has worked on setting up systems that provide the cattle with clean water. The problem is that cattle can make a mess of drinking water, either by getting manure in it or simply standing in it.
In an attempt to bypass problems like that, Besser is currently working on a new USDA-funded project that will deliver drinking water to cattle through a nozzle they drink directly out of. Time will tell how that works out.
As frustrating as attempts to control E. coli in feedlots and on farms has been, Besser has seen some progress.
For example, research has shown that some combinations of probiotic bacteria strains can be effective in controlling E. coli while also improving cattle health.
Probiotics are live microorganisms such as those in some yogurts and diet supplements that have been shown to be beneficially healthy, especially in the intestinal tract.
Besser also said the vaccine developed by Pfizer and recently introduced on the market consistently lowers shedding. And even though cows in the feedlots need three doses, Besser said he thinks the feedlots will do it.
“They would love to be rid of the bug,” he said.
When he looks to the future, Besser is hoping that researchers will make a breakthrough.
“It’s entirely possible that they’ll be able to implement a decontamination step,” he said.
He also believes that gamma irradiation will eventually prove its worth in removing E. coli and other pathogens from ground beef.
“If they can find a dose that will kill pathogens but not hurt the quality of the ground beef and not be a risk to the employees, consumer acceptance (of irradiation) might improve,” he said.
Dale Moore, director of Veterinary Medicine Extension at Washington State University, is another example of a veterinarian involved in food safety in the “farm-to-fork” chain.
She has done a lot of research on the judicious use of antibiotics on dairy farms and said that the advantage of preventing diseases that would need antibiotics is that no treatment is necessary.
“That reduces the chances for antibiotic resistance and antibiotic residues in the cows,” she said, referring to the connection many scientists have made between antibiotic use in farm animals and the rising rates of antibiotic resistance in humans.
In a USDA-funded research project begun in 2007 on a large dairy farm, Moore worked with a team of WSU veterinary scientists that found that raising calves without using milk replacer containing sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics was actually healthier for the calves and more profitable for the farmers.
In a video about food safety, veterinarian Ron DeHaven, formerly administrato
r of USDA’s Animal and P
lant Health Inspection Service and currently CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association, laments that the public is largely unaware of the critical role veterinarians play in food safety “from farm to fork.”
“It’s veterinarians who ensure we have healthy livestock and poultry,” he says in the video. “Its the veterinarians in the packing and processing plants who ensure the wholesomeness of our meat. And it’s the veterinarians in the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA who establish and enforce good standards for food safety.”
WSU veterinarian Tom Besser agrees with DeHaven’s assessment of public awareness, adding that there are also a lot of veterinarians in research and public health offices.
“I don’t think there’s much awareness in the public that veterinarians are involved in food safety,” he said. “But the truth is that veterinarians aren’t just out on the farm. There are a lot of diverse veterinary careers, many of them in food safety.”
Photos, courtesy of American Veterinary Medical Association, are of Dr. Maureen Hall, examining a calf on an Illinois dairy farm, and of Dr. Marcus Kehrli, recording data about a dairy calf.