Talk about boots on the ground. In mid-April over 140 members of the Academy of Veterinary Consultants (AVC), an organization of 800 mostly beef cattle veterinarians held their spring meeting in Washington, D.C. Usually meeting in places closer to cattle country such as Oklahoma City, Denver, Kansas City and the like, the AVC leadership felt it was time to reach out congressional members and staffers on their own turf, as well as give members an opportunity to become more familiar with how things are done in Washington.
“We came here because we felt we needed to be more active as an organization,” says Immediate Past President Tom Latta, DVM, Hansford County Veterinary Hospital, Spearman, Texas. “After observing how the membership interacted in meetings with legislative aides and committees, we saw that this meeting was a success. We also saw how youthful those staffers were, and they are the ones who are carrying the message to our representatives.”
The program committee focused on some of the most relevant issues at hand, including antimicrobial resistance, animal welfare and food safety. “Our program had speakers at the researcher, government and practical level, including veterinarians who are out there taking care of cattle every day,” says Incoming President Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, Cattle Empire, Sublette, Kan. “Our goal was to demonstrate to some of the people in Washington that we are out there working every day to protect our animals and our food supply.”
The program featured information on the new regulations, stockmanship, welfare assessments, prudent use of antimicrobials, case studies, practice tips and beef quality assurance principles by feedlot owner Anne Burkholder of Cozad, Neb. Burkholder and Guy Loneragan, BVSc, PhD, Texas Tech University also participated in a “Beef 101” session sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for congressional staffers.
The highlight of the meeting was a reception at the House Agriculture Committee room on Capitol Hill, prior to which AVC members sent invitations to congressmen and staffers. Unfortunately, Congress was out of session, but well over 100 staffers attended and mingled with AVC members. “I heard several times how most of our officials get their advice from 20-year-olds, and it was very clear that is quite true, as there were a lot of very bright, very young staffers and interns at the reception,” Sjeklocha says. “But they were very open to visit with us. We need to think about the fact that these are young people and there will be turnover in them. This is another indicator that we need to be more present in Washington. Not only are officials re-elected or newly elected, when they come into office they need to be educated. And when new officials come in they will probably bring new staff who need to be educated.”
The reception wasn’t just to eat good food and enjoy the view of the Capitol from the balcony. AVC members were active in making contacts.
“The nice thing about having the reception at the House offices was that members were able to pass out business cards, offer themselves as resources and have discussions with the guests,” adds Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVCP, Kansas State University. “We want to be a resource for them and have them reach out to us when they are making decisions, advising the people they work for, writing bills. They want to know what goes on in animal agriculture and we want them to reach out to us instead of someone else. I think we‘ve opened the eyes of a lot of members of what they can do here. We need to continue to drive development of relationships of legislative staff so they reach out to us. All of our members can be an important resource for them as they get into issues that affect agriculture.”
The timing was fortuitous as well. The week prior, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled on Guidance Documents 209 and 213, and a draft document on the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD). These regulations will change the way some veterinary products such as antimicrobials are used in food-animal medicine.
“It was unique that the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine announced these new regulations as it pertains to feed grade antibiotics,” Sjeklocha says. “Dr. Bill Flynn from the FDA was already on our agenda to speak, so he got to explain in greater detail the ramifications of the new guidance documents. He got a tremendous amount of feedback from our members as well. It’s very clear that this issue of regulation of veterinary medicine and food animal production is a clear and present concern. Veterinarians need to become more active on these issues.”
Apley adds, “It was very important we were here, especially at the time that Guidance 209 and 213 were released in addition to the draft VFD rules because we were able to talk directly with the representatives of the FDA and were able to give input.”
“The Academy has much to offer in the way of professional expertise and it is important to position ourselves to the legislatures so they know they can reach out to those in the AVC with knowledge in certain areas when needed,” says AVC Incoming Vice President Dan Goehl, Canton Veterinary Clinic, Canton, Mo. “Unfortunately, there are issues being voted on and legislated that are not always based on science and we need to be proactive in addressing them.”
Priming the pump
The meeting in Washington didn’t happen on a whim. AVC Past President Jerry Stokka, DVM, Pfizer Animal Health, says the seeds were planted about a dozen years ago. Stokka had given some presentations on animal agriculture to a wellness committee at a medical center. “It caused me to do a lot of work to gather information and shape my philosophy on why we do things the way we do,” he explains. “It became a bit of a mission to try to educate more people about it. When the opportunity came up, stimulated by a lot of outside influences as well, such as what Anne Burkholder is doing, it seemed like the opportunity was staring us in the face to have some kind of small influence on the policies made here often by staffers with limited resources.”
This, Stokka says, was an opportunity to take the premier cattle veterinary association right to the heart of where policy gets made. “We set our meetings in advance and the opportunity came to consider Washington. And while there may have been some initial resistance to meeting here, the Board pushed forward with it and I believe it was the right thing to do.”
More recently, Sjeklocha and AVC member Bob Larson, DVM, PhD, Kansas State University, visited Washington in February as a pre-emptive trip to “prime the pump.” “I’d never been to a senator or representative’s office prior to that,” Sjeklocha says. “It was a new experience for me and they seemed to be very responsive. It behooves us to understand better the process that goes on in Washington.”
Stokka, who has been an AVC member for more than 20 years, adds that the “key has been turned on” with the contacts made in Washington. “People here will know more about who AVC is, what is our role in society and our role in food production. We have made our voice heard, and while we may not be able to change the regulations that have been written, we’ll have a larger role in the next rules that are or are not written. Our influence is driven by those of us in the organization and the scientific community who are trying to find the truth in the information.”
Sjeklocha says that NCBA and AVMA have been active in education programs with congressional staffers, and several AVC members have participated as speakers as he has. “We need to understand as cattle veterinarians that it will take more than one trip to D.C. to resolve these issues. It may not be AVC making a trip in the near future, but members need to make themselves available to NCBA, AVMA, AABP and other groups to come here and educate our legislators and elected officials on the finer points of food production so they have a better understanding as more activity toward regulations occur.”
Latta says it’s extremely important that the industry has to get over talking about “they” need to get things done. “We have to do it, we have to be involved.”
Goehl agrees. “It’s easy to sit back and assume someone else is going to be the voice for the beef industry, but they say the world is ‘run by those who show up’ and we need to ‘show up’ or be prepared to live with consequences we may not like,” he says.
“Veterinarians are going to have to get more active in trying to influence federal regulations and laws,” Sjeklocha concurs. “We’re very pleased with our experience in Washington, but we need o understand that our work has just begun.”
What is Beef 101?
Beef 101 is an educational series on the beef industry created by the National Cattlemen’s Association (NCBA) about three years ago. Kristina Butts, executive director of legislative affairs for NCBA, says the purpose is to try to educate congressional staffers about the beef industry and break down and discuss complex topics such as antibiotics, E. coli, food safety and animal welfare. “The point is to give them a better appreciation and understanding of these topics,” Butts says.
The program brings in third-party experts such as veterinarians, nutritionists and producers in the cow-calf, stocker, background and feedlot sectors. These speakers also become excellent resources for the legislative staff.
At the spring AVC meeting, Guy Loneragan, BVSc, PhD, Texas Tech University, spoke on antimicrobial use and antimicrobial resistance. Joining him was feedlot owner Anne Burkholder, Will Feed, Inc., Cozad, Neb., who spoke about the care and handling of cattle on her 3,000-head operation.
During the question and answer period, staffers asked questions on everything from the difference between resistance and residues, too “pink slime” which Burkholder seamlessly addressed when she explained what lean finely-textured beef is all about.
See a video featuring Loneragan and Burkholder speaking at Beef 101 at www.BovineVetOnline.com, and search for “Beef101”.