Animal health matters: Veterinarians involved in our food systems beyond animal care

Russ Daly and Tyler McMurray
South Dakota State University Extension

I recently hosted Tyler McMurray, a Mississippi State veterinary student, for an externship here at SDSU. Tyler’s interests in advocacy and policy – along with “traditional” veterinary medicine – are unique among veterinary students.  As such, I invited her to write a column elaborating on how veterinarians are involved in much more than direct animal care:   

Most people think of veterinarians as the doctor down the road that spays their puppy or semen checks their bulls, but many do not realize that veterinarians play a wide variety of roles all over the United States. Veterinarians are crucial in protecting our animal agriculture industries, particularly regarding policy and regulatory medicine.

Veterinarians are critical to the wellbeing, health and safety of your livestock throughout the production process. Your local veterinarian provides direct care for food animals, as well as an understanding of how you can minimize disease risk while optimizing your animals’ production and efficiency. These services help maintain your operation’s profitability while also guaranteeing a safe and wholesome food product for consumers.

Whether it’s giving vaccine recommendations, pregnancy checking cattle or writing treatment protocols, vets are beneficial to your animals and their productivity.

There are also veterinarians working on Capitol Hill and in Pierre that safeguard your local veterinarian’s ability to provide those services. Our nation’s ever-changing political climate continuously creates laws and regulations that impact animal agriculture. Those restrictions may also impact how your veterinarian delivers services to you.

For example, legislation that alters the use of antibiotics in food animals may affect your ability to treat sick animals if you do not have a veterinary-client-patient-relationship (VCPR) with your local veterinarian.

Veterinarians work with government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, state-based departments and many others to advocate for producers and their veterinarians.

USDA veterinarians work with entities such as slaughter plants, zoos and research facilities to uphold the laws of the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA regulates animal imports to protect U.S. livestock from the potential of foreign animal diseases. They also protect animals from diseases already in the U.S. by implementing disease prevention, control and eradication programs through animal identification and animal movement policies. Veterinarians in these positions offer expertise in applying how these different programs would be implemented on your ranch or farm in the event of a disease outbreak.

At the FDA, vets utilize science and law to protect both human and animal health. The FDA is in charge of approving products for animals. This includes animal medications, devices and feed for both companion and food animals. The FDA ensures that the animal health products you and your local veterinarian use are both safe and effective.

Moreover, these products must be manufactured under safe, sanitary conditions; consistency of the product during manufacturing must also be guaranteed.  It is important to have veterinarians working for the FDA, because they are able to use their training to interpret the scientific data that ultimately affects the products you use.

Here in South Dakota, the state veterinarian and other vets working for the Animal Industry Board are responsible for regulatory actions including meat inspections, tuberculosis testing, animal import permits, animal welfare concerns and many others.

The Animal Industry Board meets regularly to discuss issues that impact you, the producers. The board and their veterinarians provide surveillance systems for new and emerging diseases to protect your animals.

In South Dakota, the state veterinarian also helps direct the licensure process that ensures your local veterinarians are following good medical standards of practice. Our State Public Health Veterinarian collaborates with many different groups, including the Department of Health, to provide local veterinarians and producers with the resources to respond to and prevent public health problems associated with animals.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are also veterinarians who work for animal agriculture industries that lobby governmental officials to vote for pro-agriculture legislation. Those veterinarians are well-equipped to discuss and defend the specific interests of producers, in part because of their broad education. The Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree truly allows veterinarians to impact agriculture on multiple levels.

Quite literally, veterinarians are important in every step of the food production and animal care systems, from farms to (government) tables.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at or at (605)688-5171.