Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, the recently named successor to Dr. Bruce W. Little as AVMA executive vice president, answered several questions for JAVMA News regarding a variety of topics—including the pet food recall and the veterinary workforce, his years at the Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and why he's coming to work for the AVMA. The APHIS head believes the veterinary profession to be at a "critical crossroads," where animal health and public health are converging. The AVMA's strategic planning goals, Dr. DeHaven says, will help veterinarians maintain their viability within an ever-evolving world.
Q Why did you accept the offer to be the AVMA executive vice president?
A The AVMA is truly a world-class organization known for excellence. It has served our profession well in the past, but more important, AVMA leadership has been strategically planning for the needs of the organization and the public we serve. I feel that the AVMA's five strategic planning goals clearly articulate the major challenges ahead and provide direction for the organization and the veterinary profession. Similarly, I believe that our profession is at a critical crossroads, and now is the time for us to consider how we can best serve the needs of a global society while also ensuring the viability of our profession. In fact, the two go hand in hand.
Serving as the executive vice president will provide an exceptional opportunity to work with the leadership of the AVMA toward a common vision for the future of our profession.
On a more personal level, I have thoroughly enjoyed a 28-year career with APHIS, culminating as the administrator for the last three years. There is no agency in the federal government that is more critical to protecting and promoting American agriculture than APHIS, and the agency has proven its worth over and over, particularly in the last decade as we faced new and re-emerging pests and diseases at an ever-increasing rate. I'm ready to move on to new challenges and believe my background, skills, and vision for our profession will complement the strategic direction set forth by the AVMA leadership.
Q What qualifies you for the job?
A As APHIS administrator and throughout my career, I have worked through organizations to make significant contributions toward improving both animal and human health and advancing the veterinary medical profession. The agency has approximately 8,300 employees and an operating budget of approximately $1.9 billion, and I have provided the leadership and fiscal responsibility to achieve the agency's mission of protecting American agriculture. I believe that the skills, knowledge, and abilities that I have used on a daily basis to lead this high-profile federal agency dovetail with the needs of the AVMA.
Q Why did you leave APHIS?
A I could not be more proud or honored to serve as the administrator of APHIS but, as they say, all good things must come to an end. I feel that leaders have a limited time to accomplish their goals and maintain a positive impact on an organization. After nearly three decades with APHIS, it was simply time for me to move on—for my own benefit and that of the agency. At the same time, I am still young enough and have the energy and motivation for a second career. I'm looking at the executive vice president position with enthusiasm and with every expectation that I will be able to make a positive contribution to both the AVMA and our profession.
Q What achievements are you most proud of?
A The one that garnered the most public attention and media coverage was our handling of the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy found in the United States. Steps we have taken for years, and strengthened following the first finding of BSE in this country, ensure the safety of our beef. Following the diagnosis of that first case, we were closely watching cattle prices and consumer confidence. Cattle prices dipped briefly but recovered quickly, and consumer confidence in the safety of our beef was already high and actually went up, subsequent to the finding. We should not underestimate the ability of our consumers to understand the science and then make informed choices.
In 2003, when I was the deputy administrator of Veterinary Services within APHIS, we successfully eradicated a major outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease in the Southwest, the largest foreign animal disease in the United States in 30 years. Eradication was achieved in one-third the time and with half the costs of the prior outbreak of a similar magnitude. This successful yearlong eradication campaign involved approximately 7,000 people and $175 million in emergency funding.
But I'm equally proud of activities in other units within APHIS. Our Plant Protection and Quarantine unit has evolved into an effective emergency response organization responding to outbreaks of pests such as potato cyst nematode and plum pox virus—this, while also becoming the world's leader in science-based risk analysis as we consider imports of commodities from around the globe.
Wildlife Services is working at over 600 airports to reduce the incidence of wildlife strikes with commercial and military aircraft while they also are effectively managing the wildlife component of some domestic livestock diseases such as tuberculosis and pseudorabies.
Biotechnology Regulatory Services is providing appropriate safeguards to the environment without unduly restricting an industry that has almost limitless potential to meet the nutritional needs of tomorrow. They have permitted more than 13,000 field tests of genetically modified plants, and their workload is increasing exponentially.
Animal Care provides protection to the well-being of thousands of mammals in zoos, circuses, research laboratories, and commercial pet breeders and dealers while also working to develop regulations that will one day extend such protection to birds.
And finally, our International Services unit is facilitating the export of America's agriculture while providing technical assistance to our foreign counterparts on everything from risk assessments to wild bird surveillance for avian influenza.
Q What were the greatest challenges?
A As with any good job, the challenges are also what make the job fun and exciting. Because of the nature of the work of protecting and regulating agriculture, it is critical that APHIS maintains a solid scientific basis for its regulatory actions. As administrator, the biggest challenge has been to successfully operate at the convergence of biological science, political science, and economic reality. The best solution from a scientific standpoint isn't always feasible from a political or economic perspective, so it is usually an issue of finding a solid scientific solution that can actually be implemented in the real world.
Another challenge has been staying current on 50 or 60 hot topics, any one of which could be the subject of the next media call or briefing on Capitol Hill. Here again, it is the diversity and magnitude of the topics that made the job enjoyable as well as challenging.
Q What do you see as the AVMA's role in organized veterinary medicine?
A The AVMA is the focal point for organized veterinary medicine, dealing with everything from the quality of education in our veterinary colleges to ensuring our voice is heard on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures. The AVMA needs to be the leader in articulating a vision for our profession, taking action and collaborating with like-minded organizations on relevant issues, and listening to the concerns of individuals and organizations within the profession.
Q You've had firsthand experience within the AVMA. Do you think it's possible to effectively represent a membership with such diverse interests and allegiances?
A Having open, transparent processes that allow all interested parties an opportunity for input is how we have conducted business in APHIS. And I can assure you that, on most issues, we have a very broad diversity of positions, whether it be an issue involving animal welfare or international trade in some agricultural commodity. Recognizing that it will not always be possible to reach consensus, everyone at least needs to feel like their concerns were heard and considered. Ultimately, the leadership needs to go home at night feeling like they made right decision for the right reason.
As for AVMA issues, my guess is that most situations won't be an "either/or" but finding ways to accommodate multiple interests. At the same time, resource commitments, decisions, and positions taken by the AVMA need to be consistent with the organization's strategic plan.
Q How would you like to see the AVMA's global influence expanded?
A Whether in government, private industry, or organized veterinary medicine, the world automatically looks to the United States for leadership, whether we like it or not! Personally, I think this is a good thing, as I would prefer to have us setting a global standard rather than adjusting to one. At the same time, there are limitless opportunities for global partnerships—veterinary education, consistency on animal welfare issues, and responding to the latest global threat to animal and public health are just a few examples. As we talk about the AVMA providing leadership to our profession, we need to consider that role not just on a national basis, but also look for opportunities to provide leadership and enhance our profession on a global scale. In that regard, I have already received e-mail messages from several international colleagues expressing an interest in continued collaboration in my new capacity as the AVMA executive vice president.
Q How should the AVMA become more of a leader on animal welfare issues? Also, how do you balance animal welfare with food animal production?
A First, let me restate the obvious: The AVMA should continue—and enhance—its role as leader in the animal welfare arena. There is no organization with more expertise or credibility in animal welfare than the AVMA. The field of animal welfare is changing, and we need to be leaders in that change. First, there is still a huge need for research—it is virtually impossible to develop performance-based standards without the data to support them. Additionally, while in the United States, farm animals are exempt from the federal Animal Welfare Act; the attention this issue is getting worldwide is growing exponentially. The AVMA needs to work with the World Organization for Animal Health as it develops production standards. While these standards are guidance, powerful market forces worldwide can push producers to adopt these standards. Additionally, domestic groups are also using the marketplace to influence animal production; several fast-food chains have adopted standards for producers of meat and eggs. I believe the AVMA can be a shaping force in the development of science-based and verifiable standards to ensure that the food we eat is not only safe but also raised in a manner that consumers find to be acceptable.
Q The National Veterinary Medical Service Act and Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act are two legislative remedies aimed at shortages in the veterinary workforce. What has been your experience with this workforce problem?
A The aging veterinary workforce is an issue for all of us. At APHIS we have developed recruitment and retention programs to ensure that the need for regulatory veterinarians is met. I would like to use my position with AVMA to continue these and other efforts. Small animal practice serves an enormous need in this country, as many of us consider our pets as members of the family. We also need to stress the needs of the country—indeed, of the world—to ensure that there are sufficient large animal veterinarians to keep the food supply safe and abundant. To meet the growing demand, we must be creative as we work with veterinary colleges; any qualified candidate for veterinary college should have the chance to attend. And we need to reach out to underrepresented populations and encourage a diversity of young people to graduate from high schools, attend college, and then veterinary schools.
Q Does the massive pet food recall illustrate the need for more veterinary inspectors?
A The pet food recall illustrates the global nature of our food and feed supply: Agriculture is rarely a local issue anymore. The problem highlights the need for process controls at all steps of the production chain. Every producer needs to analyze possible risks and develop methods to control for those risks, in each product, whether it is human food or pet food. While inspection serves an important role to verify the overall process, the responsibility for safe food and feed is vast and is shared by many people at every step along the way. Veterinarians are important to ensure the animals are healthy to begin with, to help educate others about the science that underlies safe food and feed production, and to serve as inspectors as well. Furthermore, since food production is global, collaboration with our international peers is vital.
Q What do you see as other challenges confronting veterinary medicine? How will the AVMA address them?
A The veterinary profession is at a crossroads, and with more than 75,000 members, the AVMA is in a unique position to have a major influence. The intersection of animal health and public health, and the growing demand for food supply veterinary medicine, is critical to meeting the needs of a global society. Veterinarians have had a historic role in food safety, but we also need to recognize that approximately 70 percent of emerging human diseases are zoonotic. A strong veterinary infrastructure around the world can have enormous benefit not just to the health of the animals, but for people as well. I think it is important to note that the components of the veterinarian's oath—to protect animal health, relieve animal suffering, conserve livestock resources, promote public health and advance medical knowledge—are all interrelated. As veterinarians we have an enormous role in society, and AVMA is perfectly placed to provide leadership to define and coordinate that role.
Q Do you expect your years in Washington, D.C., will benefit the AVMA in the legislative arena?
A It's been a privilege and an honor to be a public servant in Washington, D.C., and I believe the experience will serve me well at AVMA. I have testified before Congress, briefed staffers, and worked with many interest groups inside the Washington Beltway. I understand how the many divergent interests involved in an issue can quickly either collide or collaborate, depending on how an issue is managed. I have also learned that there is a need to listen to all sides of an issue but still be able to make a decision that is both fast and fair. I believe my skills will complement the highly qualified expertise within the AVMA Governmental Relations Division.