|Volume 21, Number 2||Fall, 1994|
I have been asked to address some of the issues, problems and concerns facing veterinary medical education from an industry perspective. While the perspective of industry may be unique, the challenges addressed in this paper affect everyone associated with animal agriculture on some level. I work for Premium Standard Farms (PSF), one of the fastest growing pork production companies in the world. By the end of this year, PSF will be the only vertically integrated pork producer in the country. PSF is on the leading edge of the consolidation and integration taking place in the pork industry. My comments come from my experience and perspective at PSF.
I could address any number of challenges facing the industry today, but I have narrowed the list to three:
- Human Resources/Training and Communication
- Public Policy/Preharvest Food Safety
- Attitudes Toward Change
Human Resources/Training and Communication
Large scale animal agriculture requires a strong human resource department. To be successful in what some have termed "factory farming," you must have a strong work force that understands production and has the knowledge and skills to complete the necessary tasks successfully. The ability to implement standardized production practices is the benchmark for success.
Managing large-scale recruiting and training programs is something new to many of us. The integration that took place in the poultry industry in the 1960s is now taking place in the pork industry. The result is larger operations with more employees doing specialized tasks. Historically, we have been accustomed to working with smaller independent producers whose labor issues were limited by the scale of the operation. That is now changing dramatically. Employee retention/turnover will emerge as an important issue. PSF currently has approximately 700 employees in production operations in North Central Missouri. Next year at this time we will have more than double that number in production and processing activities. How we recruit, train and communicate with this work force will have a substantial impact on our success. Human resource issues will become a bigger part of what veterinary practitioners are asked to resolve on a regular basis.
Public Policy/Preharvest Food Safety
Public policy is emerging, as never before, as a critical issue facing all of production agriculture. As the number of producers continues to decrease dramatically, so does the influence on public policy unless new strategies are adopted. Farmers now make up less than 2% of the population and urban members of congress outnumber rural members 12 to 1. This means that decisions which will determine the future of agriculture are being made by people with little or no agricultural background. It is up to us to provide the information needed to make sound policy decisions. Developing strategies and mechanisms to make that happen is a key challenge facing us all.
Every link in the food chain is under increasing pressure to improve food safety. At the producer level the concept of "preharvest" food safety is still relatively new to many, although Quality Assurance (QA) programs are being fostered by major producer organizations. The E. coli 0157 crisis that occurred in the northwest U.S. in the winter of 1993, and the resulting media coverage, has raised public concern over food safety to a new level. As scientists and practitioners, it is our responsibility to ensure that policy decisions on food safety are based on sound science and not media hype.
Attitudes toward Change
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing agriculture today is our collective attitude toward change. The pork industry is undergoing incredible change. Just 25 years ago we had about 1 million hog farmers. Now there are about 200,000 farms and of that group about 13,000 (6.5%) produce 60% of the hogs. In 1981 only four plants processed more than 1.5 million head per year; now 23 plants do. Of the four largest packers just 10 years ago, only one is in the top four today.
The current restructuring of the pork industry is being driven by consumers who are demanding a consistently lean, wholesome and safe product. This change from a commodity-driven industry to a consumer-driven industry offers tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to get involved. The key question for producers and practitioners alike is, do we see this change as a threat to our existence, or the opportunity of a lifetime?
Veterinarians have a diversified educational background which can lead to unique career opportunities. It is important for veterinary educators to look for new roles and opportunities to which their students can aspire. Failure to do so will further limit the veterinarian's position in animal agriculture.