Despite the central role that veterinarians play in food safety, a critical shortage of food-animal veterinarians is threatening the safety of the U.S. food supply, warns Veterinarian Ron DeHaven, CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association, in a video put out by the association. DeHaven said that one of the main reasons for the shortage is that most veterinarians today are involved in pet care, which leaves a shortage of food-animal veterinarians.

According to American Veterinary Medical Association statistics for 2009, of the approximately 61,000 veterinarians in private clinical practice, only 1,103 exclusively treated food animals, while 41,117 exclusively treated “companion animals.”  That’s in contrast to the early 1900s when almost all veterinarians were treating food animals.

Many private clinics treat a mix of food animals and companion animals. Some also treat horses.

According to the AVMA, the approximate number of veterinarians in the United States in 2009 was 87,998–43,196 of them men and 44,802 of them women.

Of those, about 15,179 positions were in corporate or public employment, which includes colleges and universities.

DeHaven said that with only about 8,500 veterinarians caring for more than 9.4 billion head of livestock, a shortage of food-animal veterinarians poses a risk to the safety of the nation’s food supply.

“We need to increase the capacity of food-animal veterinarians,” he said, pointing to a recent report done by the Food Safety Working Group, which calls for a new focus on the prevention of foodbornne illnesses. During a Senate sub-committee hearing last year of a Government Accounting Office report on the federal veterinary workforce, legislators heard concerns that there aren’t enough federal veterinarians to assure a safe food supply and effectively deal with zoonotic diseases–diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

DeHaven, former administrator for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, described the situation as “dangerous.” He also told the legislators about some of the reasons for this shortage: veterinary student debt loads, which has been cited as anywhere from $130,000 to $150,000; non-competitive federal salaries; a limited ability to boost the number of veterinary graduates; and the population shift away from rural areas to suburban and urban areas.

Various solutions have been proposed, among them reducing student debt through reimbursement programs for graduates who agree to work in regions with a shortage of food-animal veterinarians.

Another is to expand the capacity at veterinary schools and colleges. But all of this calls for more funding.

Then, too, many suburban and urban students going into veterinary school haven’t had any exposure to food animals. For some, the idea of treating an animal that’s being raised to be butchered is what Veterinarian Eric Barchas, who specializes in small animals in San Francisco, describes on his blog as “unsavory.”

But he also pointed to starting-salary discrepancies, which for “exclusively” food-animal vets, he put at $72,318, and for attorneys in big firms or big cities, $145,000 to $160,000.

“When the average starting salary of a food animal vet is $160,000, there will be no shortage of food-animal vets,” he said. But he also pointed out that for food-animal veterinarians to make that much money, the price of meat would have to go up, something that would make consumers “unhappy.”

Money aside, there’s also the love of the profession to be factored in. Veterinarian Dale Moore, director of Veterinary Medicine Extension at Washington State University, said she decided to be a veterinarian when she worked on a dairy farm in northwest Washington state.

“I never looked back,” she said about getting degrees in zoology and biology and then going to veterinary school at University of California at Davis. “It’s all I ever wanted to do.”

But she said that new graduates who go to rural areas to work generally don’t make enough money to pay off their student loans.

“They’re looking for a way to pay back the loans and have a life,” she said, adding that that’s the reason many of them go to work for public agencies, which generally doesn’t involve working with animals.

As for her, she’s happy to be  involved in research that allows her to work with dairy cows.

“I thank every day that I’m a veterinarian,” she said.