JSHAP Member Forum: Whom do we really work for?

Seems like a simple question – the person who pays the bills is the one we work for, isn’t it? Why as I get older do I seem to struggle so much with the simple questions? Maybe it is just a feeble mind or too many hours of windshield time, but the simple stuff never seems so simple any more. All this pondering has led me to an answer that is not so simple, but puts our profession, if we can implement it, in a position to thrive and if we can’t, merely as a line-item cost in the food-production chain.

For the profession to thrive in the future, we need to “work for the pig” and advocate on its behalf with all stakeholders in the food chain. The pig is the reason all stakeholders are even connected to the same chain: it is the one thing that they have in common. Our unique training and oath put us at the intersection of issues facing the food-supply chain: welfare, food safety, environmental protection, and business sustainability. Traditionally, we have focused on protecting animal health. While this has served us well, and protecting animal health cannot be ignored, it is a poor model into the future. By balancing all of our roles, we can create a tremendous value for all stakeholders in the food-supply chain.

Viewing decisions from the perspective of the pig creates a unique insight that can accommodate the needs of all the stakeholders. Often we are placed in a position where we are defending the producer (profits) or “the consumer” (welfare), and both sides are frustrated when we defend the other, limiting our ability to do the greatest good. Worse, it could lead to segmentation of our small profession into “production” or “welfare” specialties.

I was fortunate enough to have the late Dr Stanley Curtis as a both a teacher and colleague. His unique insights on animal behavior, performance, and society’s view on how we raise animals serve as a guidepost for our role in the food chain. Simply stated, take care of the pig and it will take care of you. If we can continue to advocate with all stakeholders that high levels of biological productivity are consistent with a good state of being, then it is possible to align interests around a common goal. Over the long haul, that benefits the producer, the consumer, and most importantly, the pig.

As a profession, we have transitioned from individual animal care to farm health advisors and information providers. In a farm-centric food-supply chain, this was an effective model to leverage our talents and skills over more animals. With the migration of the food-supply chain to a “technified,” integrated model, it is common to use multiple streams of information to make operational decisions, thereby decreasing the value of each piece of information. Value is no longer created by supplying information, but by synthesizing the multiple streams of information into useful knowledge.

This is where working for the pig has its biggest benefits. If we work for either the producer (profit based) or the customer (“welfare,” food-safety based), we fail to balance the available information in a way to create the greatest impact on the entire chain. Using a pig-centric perspective allows us to guide decisions in a way that benefits everyone. To be successful “working for the pig,” we must have a strategic change in our knowledge base. This means that we not only have a deep understanding of production operations, production economics, and human-capital management, but we also must gain a working knowledge of the rest of the food-supply chain, its economics, and the customer’s perceptions of value. In our traditional health-management role, we must value evidence-based solutions and devalue opinion-based methods of health management.

We also need a significant strategic shift in how we address problems. We must be creative, fact-driven problem solvers with a keen ability to separate symptoms from problems. Treating symptoms has been acceptable in the farm-centric model, as the local decision maker “felt better” about the situation. However, short-term resolution of symptoms without resolving the root problem in an integrated model will degrade our credibility and marginalize our role in the chain.

We are at another crossroads that we must navigate successfully, or our role in the food-supply chain will be greatly reduced. In 1994, right after my graduation, when the pig business was in one of those tough patches, Dr Ralph Vinson told me “over a career, every vet had to go through one of these challenges and it was good to get it over with early.” While I wish Ralph had been right, the last 20 years have shown me how resilient we are as a profession. I have all the confidence in the world that we can meet this challenge head on.

James F. Lowe, DVM, MS

Journal of Swine Health and Production, January-February, 2013