The face of the food industry is changing. Modern food production and farming are not what they were decades ago.

Not only is that changing how producers approach their operations, but this also affects how beef practitioners approach their relationships with clients, and their diagnoses and treatments.

In a study in 2010, titled “Food Systems Veterinary Medicine for the 21st Century,” experts at Iowa State University (ISU) and Kansas State University (KSU) address this topic in hopes of developing ways to better prepare veterinarians for practice in a food systems world.

H. Scott Hurd, DVM, Ph.D., associate professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, ISU, and Bob L. Larson, DVM, Ph.D., professor, Coleman Chair Food Animal Production Medicine, Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, KSU, are leading the program.

They say no matter a veterinarian’s specialty, he must understand the implications of decisions throughout the food, environment and public health systems. They say, this can best be accomplished by taking a “systems approach” to their practice.

Times, They Are A-Changin’

Dr. Hurd says traditional veterinary training has often involved a clinical approach, running through lists of diagnostic tests.

H. Scott Hurd, DVM, Ph.D., College of Veterinary Medicine, ISU“It’s more of an ‘if this, then that’ approach,” he says. “But if a veterinarian finds himself working in a large, integrated feedyard or packing plant, or in Washington D.C. dealing with policy, that sort of problem solving isn’t sufficient.”

When working in food system environments, Dr. Hurd says, a system approach (like that used in engineering) is more appropriate and effective.

“Rarely is a veterinarian dealing with one individual animal,” he says. “Veterinarians are typically working within an ecosystem. People, feed and wildlife find themselves going in and out of this dynamic ecosystem.”

Dr. Larson says the traditional method of veterinary training includes reducing problems down to single or very few components—for example, a bacteria or virus that causes the disease.

“We tend to teach the pathogens that cause scours, respiratory disease or abortion,” he says. “In reality, a veterinarian is faced with the syndrome of scours, respiratory disease or abortion that involve much more than pathogens. We are attempting to redesign the teaching and learning process to take a step back and focus on the initial complaint, rather than the toxins or bacteria associated with it.”

This approach has led to veterinary students reaching the answer more quickly, Dr. Larson says.

“It forces efficiencies. You get the right answer more often and more quickly,” he says. “You spend less time and get the right diagnostic answers more quickly.”

In addition, Dr. Larson says, many causes of disease, or reproductive or growth inefficiency occurred in the past or in a distant location. A systems approach allows a practitioner to investigate the entire set of factors that contribute to a problem.

“When the root problem occurred weeks, months or years ago, you’ll be more effective by evaluating and diagnosing the problem by looking at the entire system, rather than the problem you face today,” he says. “Many times, successful treatment is tied to applying the remedy to the right place—to go back to an early risk factor.”