If you were to look up my information as listed with the American Veterinary Medical Association, you would find my primary field of practice is Regulatory Veterinary Medicine. While I do have a fair amount of large animal and small animal medicine in my background, I do make my living as a regulatory veterinarian. To be honest, I consider it an honor to be able to serve the consuming public in that capacity. I am an unapologetic government worker who tries to give the taxpayers their money’s worth. I usually don’t pay a whole lot of attention when I hear people say, "We just need government to get out of our lives." Maybe it’s because it is an election year, but I am hearing that statement more and more often. At some point it begins to sound like someone dragging their fingernails across a chalk board. (Do schools still use chalkboards? I would hate for kids to grow up not knowing that sound.)
Let me say before we get too deep into this discussion that I am not a person who never met a regulation I didn’t like. In fact, there really are a lot of government regulations that are just plain stupid, at least to my way of thinking, and you might really have a hard time presenting a case that would change my mind. There are websites dedicated to "ridiculous government regulations." When I read some of those, I was embarrassed for the people who passed these regulations and felt sorry for those who have to comply. Having conceded there are stupid government regulations, I will say, while not the only reason, government regulations have helped to separate us from third-world countries. Maybe that is a little extreme, but at least it separates us from being a second-world country.
One of the largest animal agriculture governmental regulatory programs has been the Brucellosis Eradication Program. It involved both federal and state regulatory agencies. It’s interesting that today government and industry point to that program as one of our great successes allowing us to be a world leader in animal agriculture. Yet I am a first-hand witness to how angry a person can get when we have to quarantine and test their cattle. Incidentally, did you know human brucellosis world-wide is an enormous problem? There are countries where a large percentage of the hospitalized patients are there because they have contracted brucellosis from animals either through working closely with infected animals or consuming unpasteurized dairy products. There are reports of half-a-million human cases worldwide each year. Here in the United States there are only about 100 cases yearly which are mostly linked back to unpasteurized dairy products that are brought into our country illegally from Mexico.
I suppose when we hear something repeated long enough we begin to believe it…. "Get government out of our life…." Yet it is government that orders recalls of E. coli contaminated food. It is government quarantining animals with diseases that could devastate animal agriculture here in the United States. It is often government collecting the samples and running the tests other countries require so we can export our products to them. I have, over the years, been a little confused by the person who has been able to make a living in animal agriculture, then gone ballistic when he was told we are going to have to test his animals. Now don’t misunderstand me. I know it can be a huge pain in the neck to have to catch animals and have them tested. However, animal agriculture today benefits from the thousands of producers over the years who have endured quarantines, testing and whatever other aggravations goes along with preventing or eradicating diseases. Maybe I am like everybody else in a lot of ways. When state troopers stop drunk drivers and get them off the road, I am thankful for them being there. When they pull me over for exceeding the speed limit, then that’s just too much government in our lives. When we benefit from government, we like it. When we are inconvenienced, it’s back to: "We need government out of our life."
We are right in the middle of a time in our state and nation where I am afraid the baby may be being thrown out with the bath water. Certainly, we are experiencing a severe economic downturn making government funds scarce and we must live within our means. Government must constantly examine itself to assure it safeguards the public trust which includes spending money judiciously and regulating wisely. But I believe we are seeing agriculture take a huge hit as we trim government budgets. That may come back to "bite" us someday.
Here in Alabama, our Department of Agriculture and Industries lost about a fourth of our employees last year. We now find ourselves so thin you could "read the newspaper" through us now. We are operating about as lean as you can and still be operating. I get a fair number of calls into my office from people concerned about animal welfare issues. In the past, our Agriculture Investigator Division would follow up on those calls. That doesn’t happen anymore. That division was closed as a result of severe budget cuts. So we refer those calls to the already overloaded local sheriffs’ offices. Those issues usually do not take priority at the local level. But you can bet, if they are not dealt with, animal agriculture will suffer in the eyes of the consumer.
I have always heard government doesn’t manufacture anything, doesn’t build anything and doesn’t repair anything; therefore, we are an economic drag on society. I would offer that government builds our roads, fights our fires, protects our neighborhoods and that hamburger you did not eat, that would have made you sick because it was contaminated with E. coli, is because the government is looking out for you.
I think it is important we remind our legislators that those of us who regulate agriculture are there to support the number one employer in the state and not to impede it. Commissioner McMillan and his staff have done an admirable job dealing with the hand we have been dealt. We have had to cut employees, cut services and raise fees on the farmer. Often when fees and taxes are levied on businesses, they are passed along to the consumer as part of the cost of doing business. Unfortunately, the farmer cannot pass those expenses on, yet the consumer benefits. Properly pruning a plant is healthy for the plant. However, there comes a point when over-pruning a plant is counter-productive. We need to make sure we are not forced to cut services harming our producers’ ability to do what they do better than anyone in the world. That is to produce. We can start moving in the right direction by realizing "government" and "governmental regulations" are not always "four-letter words.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for the state of Alabama.