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Have vets really sold out to industrial agribusiness?

 
James Herriot

Country matters: James Alfred ‘Alf’ Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, on his farm in 1995. Photograph: Julian Calder/Rex

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Have vets really sold out to industrial agri-business?” was written by Lucy Siegle, for The Observer on Monday 20th January 2014 09.00 UTC

It was Jean Claude Latife’s childhood dream to become a vet. “I simply loved animals. I wanted to help them and make sure they lived the longest time possible,” he says. And for 25 years he did just that. But then he also fell in love with the southwest of England. So did his wife and children. He was looking for an easier life and he knew that meant avoiding the night call-outs and heavier work associated with being a regular vet.

Instead he settled for work in an abattoir. This might seem odd: if you love animals, why would you want to usher them to their death? But Latife was adamant (and remains so) that the vet fulfills a vital role at the slaughterhouse. “I was there to stop animals suffering. Maybe I will attend to the last minutes of their life. Unloading, stunning, all these events in the abattoir that I can make less painful for the animals.” Everything he did in the abattoir he felt was entirely consistent with the veterinary equivalent of the Hippocratic oath that he had sworn solemnly years before. It includes the line: “My constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care.”

“Surrounded by death, noise, shit and concrete,” Latife quickly realised he also needed to develop a thick skin. The pressure in the abattoir to get orders out was relentless, but he often brought proceedings to a standstill when he saw rule violations. He was there to safeguard animal and public health and he took that seriously. However, his production line colleagues did not take stoppage time sanguinely. Particularly the slaughtermen who were being paid by the kill.

One day, 10 minutes before lunch, he stopped the line again. Two pigs were touching, which is strictly prohibited, as one could contaminate the other. According to Latife he was confronted by two violent slaughtermen, one fresh out of prison, who he alleges was high on drugs, and one with a police record. Rather than his being subjected to the usual verbal taunts and abuse, this time a knife was held to his throat. Latife left and never returned to the abattoir.

Latife’s experience was something that really shouldn’t happen to a vet. I suspect we still think of a vet as a James Herriot. I know I did. When James “Alf” Wright began writing fictionalised accounts of his work as a vet in Yorkshire during the 40s and 50s, someone described it as if “God’s own PR company” had been handed the account for the veterinary profession. We were told that vets were heroic, selfless safeguarders of animal rights, preferred real farm work to small animal practice (James never had much time for the hypochondriac lapdog Tricky Woo) and spent a lot of time in mad pursuit of Yorkshire farmers who had little intention of paying their bill. That image of the vet has endured, even though it turns out Herriot is about as relevant to modern practice as Mr Chips is to teaching.

Pigs Abattoir in U.K.

‘Vets have become complicit in a system that is inherently bad for animal welfare’: pig carcasses hanging in an English abattoir. Photograph: John Eveson/Rex

I head to post-Christmas Godalming, where the fields are still full of water, to the offices of Compassion in World Farming (CiWF), the organisation set up by dairy farmer Peter Roberts in 1967 to safeguard the welfare of farm animals. Today it is headed by Philip Lymbery, and he is the definition of sincerity as he talks rapidly, letting at least two cups of coffee go cold. The organisation is vehemently opposed to industrial farming, which it alleges compromises animal welfare. Since Roberts’s time the industry has grown massively – around 70bn farm animals are produced worldwide every year, and two-thirds are factory-farmed. And Lymbery is very concerned about the UK veterinary profession’s part in this. His book, Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat, written with political columnist Isabel Oakeshott, is billed as a wake-up call to the perils of industrial agriculture and devotes a whole chapter to these fears. Animal care: what happened to the vet?

“Vets have become complicit in supporting a system that is inherently bad for animal welfare,” Lymbery explains. “These systems include the mass production of broiler chickens, caged production of eggs, the large-scale permanent housing of dairy cows (so-called mega dairies) and highly intensive pig production where mothering pigs are kept in confinement where they can’t turn around for weeks at a time.”

It is not that he’s accusing vets of perpetrating acts of cruelty or negligence, but rather that they see farmers rather than animals as their clients, and in order to keep those clients will put up and shut up rather than properly addressing animal welfare.

 

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