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August 31, 2009

Talk Back: Veterinary Conflict of Interest

On Friday evening, I had a back-and-forth discussion with Dr. David Reeves, a swine veterinarian from the University of Georgia, before veterinarians and veterinary association leaders from 13 states at the Heartland Veterinary Leadership Conference in Milwaukee. Poised and well-informed, Dr. Reeves espoused a more typical, industry-oriented view of the treatment of animals in agriculture, while I said it was time for veterinary associations to stop mimicking the views of industrial agribusiness and to be in the forefront of the effort to protect animals. We had a constructive discussion that I hope left the audience thinking more critically of our dealings with animals and our responsibilities to them.

It was a timely follow-up to my recent posting taking the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to task for its misguided attack on the Pew Commission’s report on the reforms needed in industrial agriculture. The Pew Commission's own vice chairman—Dr. Michael Blackwell, former dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine—has since spoken out as well, saying he was “shocked over the fact that the AVMA did not try to learn the truth about the Commission’s work, even from one of its own members,” and “instead chose to write a response from the perspective of the industry.”

Pig face
Photo credit USDA

My thesis is simple: If there is a professional veterinary group that works for an animal-use industry (e.g., the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, which typically works for large-scale pig producers), these vets are in the employ of industry and their “science” often reflects the thinking of the industry itself. These veterinary subgroups typically drive the policy positions at AVMA, and the broader consequence is that AVMA often defends obviously inhumane practices or, at the very least, stands on the sidelines as The HSUS, our Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, and other leaders in animal welfare advocate for the interests of animals. 

It just defies common sense and the body of disinterested science to think that lifelong confinement of farm animals in very small cages is acceptable from an animal welfare perspective, but AVMA has worked against us in our efforts to phase out battery cages, veal crates, and gestation crates for years. The national association just about got into open warfare with the California Veterinary Medical Association in 2008 after the state group took a thoughtful and forward-thinking approach to the issue of factory farming and endorsed Proposition 2, a measure to phase out three of the most extreme confinement systems for farm animals in California.  

AVMA has been silent on the force-feeding of ducks and geese for production of foie gras and was silent for two decades as we pressed the case for a ban on downer cows (those too sick or injured to walk) being funneled into the food supply. AVMA has actively lobbied in favor of continuing the inhumane long-distance transport and slaughter of healthy American horses for human consumption overseas, and has also stood virtually alone as a science-based organization in opposing federal legislation to phase out the profligate use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes on factory farms (to keep animals from getting sick in inhumane, overcrowded, filthy conditions, and speed their growth). To take just the debate over the widespread dosing of livestock with antibiotics on factory farms, virtually all of the major public health organizations, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, back a dramatic change in policy. In its attacks on the Pew Commission, in fact, the AVMA has not only implicitly attacked a wide range of other science-based organizations, but it has placed the interests of industrial agriculture against the public health needs of the nation.

Many of you reacted favorably to my original column, and here’s some of your feedback.

I am a veterinarian and I am a member of HSUS, HSVMA, and AVMA. I am a member of all three because I believe that as a professional, I should support the organizations that support me. I truly appreciate AVMA’s protection and promotion of the practice of veterinary medicine; however, its positions relating to animal welfare often seem indefensible. AVMA’s disappointing opposition to the Pew report is not surprising given its association with agribusiness. Therefore, I fully support HSUS and HSVMA as they reflect and actively promote my personal beliefs about how animals should be treated in our society. And, I’m not a younger generation veterinarian as I’ve been in the profession for 23 years. Thank you HSUS. —Deb Teachout, DVM
THANK YOU for this very informative update on the AVMA! Realizing big business influences often impede animal protection efforts, one would hope vets might be excluded from succumbing to profit-only-driven decisions! I am hand-delivering a copy of this today to my own vet of 20 years in hopes he will join the HSVMA, encourage his peers in the Texas Veterinary Medical Association to do the same, and help convince the AVMA to change their lackluster leadership into real change for animals. And a letter to the editor would not hurt either! We must all do our part so the dream of a truly humane nation becomes a reality! —Linda Yarbrough, Texas
The AVMA, and the AVMA's Animal Welfare Committee, prove time and time again that they are unable or unwilling to be a significant voice for the animals that we, as veterinarians, have sworn to protect. The AVMA refuses to take any significant positions or stand on the most important animal welfare issues, and instead, panders to the pharmaceutical industry, agribusiness, as well as the conservative network of veterinarians who look at animals as commodities and the source of their income. The AVMA will continue to lose members, and in time, will realize that the organization is becoming less influential as they lose their credibility by refusing to stand up and be a true voice for more humane treatment of all animals. Until that time, I look to the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, as many more veterinarians are doing, to lead us into the future, and be the voice for real change in the animal welfare movement. —John G. Hynes, DVM
Calling the AVMA an ossified organization is exactly what it is. You would think you can trust an organization whose presenting face is one of mercy for animals. Then you feel betrayed when you see them time after time side with the industries that abuse animals. I have no respect whatsoever for the AVMA. —Craig DiBenedictis
I am only 18 years old, but I am soon going to start college and make my journey to be a veterinarian myself. I have many goals to achieve in life and several of those will be reached through having a veterinary degree. I vow that I will be one of the upcoming vets to protect animals big and small, no matter what. I know all too well about those veterinarians that share the point of view with factory farm owners and agree that those animals are "just a piece of meat." These creatures have lives of their own and no animal should be taken for granted. One day, I hope that I will be able to work for the HSUS and prevent cruelty to animals firsthand. It is one of my many goals. —Jana H.
Yes, the AVMA has always been a pawn of the industry. It is despicable to think that they pretend to represent the veterinarians of this country. The only members they are true to are the industry sellouts: the dairy, poultry and swine vets who care about "herd health" and profit, not the individual animals. That is why I choose to not be a member of the AVMA. It is a disgrace to our profession. —Anyes Van Volkenburgh, DVM
So sad but true! I have remained an AVMA member because I thought it would be better to try to bring about change than quit—but I’m about out of hope of ever seeing that organization change! They certainly don't represent my views, and I would hate for the public to think they represent the views of all veterinarians. —Deb Johnson, DVM
Recent AVMA positions: supported cutting the vocal chords of dogs, supported chopping the tails off of dogs, and supported mutilating the ears of dogs. Well...they do get paid to do all these things, right? They are not about to reduce the number of "services" that vets provide to the animal-owning public. —Edward Waits
As a member of the AVMA for over 35 years and as one who has closely monitored its positions on animal welfare issues over the years, I can only say that you have hit the nail exactly on the head. The only positive thing I can say about the AVMA is that it is a democratic organization and it does faithfully reflect, regrettably and ashamedly, the views of a majority of its members. Much of the veterinary profession appears to suffer from a condition similar to "Stockholm syndrome" wherein folks held hostage by criminals can eventually come under the hostage-takers thrall to such a degree that they begin to sympathize with, admire, and even seek to emulate their captors. Add to this the rank hypocrisy displayed by the AVMA as it seeks to portray itself in the media as an "animal welfare organization" while simultaneously undermining all true attempts at reform. In the veterinary profession's case the captors happen to be the animal using/abusing industries that pay the veterinarians' salaries and subsidize the profession. As such, the AVMA and its members will remain impervious to arguments about ethics, morality or doing what is right by their patients. They will only respond to economic pressure or the scorching heat of public opprobrium. Thank you, Mr. Pacelle, for helping to provide some of the latter. Incidentally, lest anyone mistakenly conclude from your column that the American Association of Avian Pathologists is one of the "good guys," let it be known that this group is owned lock, stock and barrel by the commercial poultry industry and that it has been one of the most reactionary, anti-animal welfare blocs within the veterinary profession. —George Bates, DVM
How sad it is to know that veterinarians, of all people, could condone cruelty to innocent creatures that have no voice. That just confirms the notion that many people in this country care about nothing but money! There are so many good vets that truly put their patients first, but those that would knowingly let an animal suffer purely for profit are, in my opinion, lower than animal abusers. Whether it is vets on the payrolls of dogfighters, corrupt horse and dog racers, or livestock producers carrying out inhumane practices, I believe they should be prohibited from calling themselves veterinarians. A better name for them would be greedy, cruelty enablers. —Barbara

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