The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Livestock Vet

Livestock Vet

From the Farmer's Tractor

April 24, 2011

 Dr. John Maas, 64, has been a livestock veterinarian for 38 years. Maas is on faculty at the University of California, Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, where he works with veterinarians and beef cattle producers in California and throughout the U.S. on issues involving cattle health, cattle nutrition, food safety and cattle well-being. Additionally, Maas and his wife are owners of a beef cattle ranch in northern California.  

Why did you become a livestock veterinarian?

I became a veterinarian because of my love of animals and of the environment in northern California where I grew up. Ranchers were the first modern environmentalists, and we practice conservation every day because it is part of efficient cattle production and it is the right thing to do.

How responsible are livestock vets for food safety in the U.S. food supply?

Veterinarians are primarily responsible for cattle health, well-being, and productivity. The foundation of food safety in beef cattle is sound health and well-being. Safe food comes from healthy animals! Veterinarians oversee the use of animal health products to prevent disease and the use of drugs to treat the occasional animal that becomes ill. Veterinarians are responsible, along with their client ranchers, for managing the use of drugs and products in such a way as to assure a safe and wholesome final product. All of us (veterinarians, ranchers, processors, distributors, retailers, and consumers) are equally responsible for food safety. Safe and wholesome food can be compromised at any step in the chain from “farm to fork” – and we all bear responsibility for our actions.

How have your veterinary practices changed over the last 10 years? And how will they evolve in the next five years?

Veterinary medicine on the ranch has become increasingly sophisticated over the last 40 years – as has the raising of cattle. In the last 10 years, the introduction of genomics, biotechnology, computer-assisted decision-making, and diagnostic procedures has all accelerated the complexity of veterinary medicine and ranching. This evolution will continue as the number of people producing food for all of us continues to dwindle. Now, less than two percent of Americans produce the food for all of us and many people around the world – all with no addition of resources (land, water, etc). New and more efficient technology will be central to this effort.

What is your greatest challenge as a livestock vet?

My greatest challenge is there are not enough hours in the day! Many of the easy problems related to animal health have been solved and are part of routine prevention programs. The tough problems are left, and technology will again be important in moving forward. We need to “grow” more scientists, medical experts, and producers who are well educated, hard working and understand and love the process of producing food for all of us. 

What does agriculture need to do to insure better food safety?

Agriculture in general has done a great job of insuring food safety, and newer technology will help even more. Some problems like E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger are really not a problem if the finished product, hamburger, is properly handled and cooked. The problem comes in when critical steps in the process are comprised. Problems arise when food inspection, testing, handling, and cooking are inadequate (in some cases all four steps). Thus, our regulatory agencies must be vigilant at all times, and we must develop technologies to detect any problems via our product testing. As consumers, we must handle and cook hamburger appropriately. We all bear responsibility and accountability for our actions and decisions.

Is food safety improving on imported foods? If not, what should we do to improve it?

The safety of imported foods is a concern for me. We have had problems from melamine contamination of pet foods to gross bacterial contamination of fruits and vegetables from certain countries. I feel comfortable with food produced in the U.S., and the best answer I have is let’s rely on U.S. food, only trade with countries we trust, and verify the safety of those imported foods.

How will S. 510 (The Food Safety Modernization Act) improve things in regards to food safety? 

It is too early to know if the Food Modernization Act will be effective. Many of the failures in food safety have been due to failures in regulatory agency oversight and accountability. More regulations may not have any impact if there are gaps in oversight and inspection. If the cost of compliance with ineffective regulations drives agricultural producers out of business and we have to rely on imported foods, we will all lose. In beef cattle production we initiated a Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program over 20 years ago that is standardized across the U.S. and helps cattle producers meet common goals for food safety, cattle health, animal well-being and sustainability. While it is a voluntary program it has formed the basis for many certified products, and it continues to evolve. So far this has been a better answer than regulations that are not enforced.