Congress handed President Bush the second veto override of his presidency May 22 when it mustered the votes to pass the $307 billion farm bill. Apart from the political wrangling and clerical gaffe surrounding the controversial reauthorization legislation, the AVMA had cause to applaud some veterinary-related provisions within it.
"Overall, the AVMA is pleased with the final outcome of the farm bill," said Dr. Mark T. Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, which has been working with Congress on many of the measures. "We would like to thank the House and Senate Agriculture committees for including provisions that will improve food safety and strengthen animal health and welfare."
Omitted from the 673-page Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, referred to as the farm bill, was a 34-page section dealing mostly with trade and international food aid. At press time in June, both the House and Senate had approved those items, again with enough votes to fend off another promised veto.
Highlights from the farm bill include authorization for a $2.5 million annual appropriation for the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank from 2008 through 2012. FARAD is a chronically underfunded resource used by veterinarians, livestock producers, and state and federal regulatory and extension specialists to ensure that drug, environmental, and pesticide contaminants do not end up in meat, milk, and eggs.
The database is administered through the Agriculture Department's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service and operates out of North Carolina State University, the University of Florida-Gainesville, and the University of California-Davis.
FARAD has been operating since September 2007 on emergency funds set to expire within the year. What's more, there's no guarantee the money in the farm bill will be appropriated. The AVMA-GRD staff is working with the House and Senate appropriations committees to secure the appropriation. But even if they're successful, the money won't arrive until 2010, which, according to Dr. Alistair Webb, a FARAD administrator at UF-Gainesville, is too late.
"We're eking this out, but come sometime in the new year, we're going to run out of money before any appropriation based on the farm bill in next year's budget. In other words, there is no funding for FARAD in the 2009 budget," Dr. Webb said, adding that layoffs of specially trained staff are all but certain. This compromises institutional ability, which later takes time to rebuild.
"We're happy for the future, but the present is very bleak," Dr. Webb said.
Elsewhere in the farm bill, the National Veterinary Medical Service Act was amended to make large- and mixed-animal veterinarian shortages in rural communities a priority. Moreover, the USDA was given less than a year to write regulations implementing the school loan repayment program for veterinarians working in underserviced areas.
Although NVMSA was enacted in 2003, the USDA has yet to implement the program. The Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry expressed frustration with the department for the delay. In February, AVMA President Gregory S. Hammer testified at a subcommittee hearing that the program is essential if more food supply veterinarians are going to be added to the workforce (see JAVMA, March 15, 2008).
The USDA CSREES, which administers NVMSA, was forbidden by language in the farm bill from transferring funds appropriated to NVMSA to other agencies as had been the case.
Additionally, the NVMSA was amended to make large- and mixed-animal veterinarian shortages in rural communities a priority.
"We're eking this out, but come sometime in the new year, we're going to run out of money before any appropriation based on the farm bill in next year's budget. In other words, there is no funding for FARAD in the 2009 budget."
—DR. ALISTAIR WEBB, ADMINISTRATOR,
FOOD ANIMAL RESIDUE AVOIDANCE DATABANK
Several animal welfare-related provisions were included in the farm bill. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois inserted an AVMA-supported amendment requiring that dogs imported into the United States for resale be healthy, have received all necessary vaccinations, and be at least six months old. Exemptions are provided for dogs imported for research or veterinary treatment.
The measure is a response to the growing number of international pet breeders importing dogs and cats to the United States for purchase.
Congress strengthened a federal animal fighting law by making it a crime to knowingly possess or train animals for fighting, enhancing the penalty for animal fighting offenses from a potential three-year prison sentence to a maximum five-year prison sentence.
The maximum fine for violating the Animal Welfare Act was increased from $2,500 to $10,000 per violation. It is the first increase in more than 20 years and was recommended in a 2005 audit by the USDA's inspector general.
"The animal welfare language included in the farm bill represents well thought-out provisions that will actually improve the welfare of animals—in this case, we're talking about ensuring the importation of healthy puppies, giving USDA Animal and Plant Health Service's Animal Care program more teeth for enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, and strengthening laws against animal fighting," observed Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division. "I commend the managers of the farm bill for seeking input from multiple stakeholders over a sufficient period of time to ensure that any associated questions, concerns, or unintended consequences had been considered and dealt with before final passage of these provisions."
Congress also directed the USDA secretary to review an upcoming report by the National Academy of Sciences on the use of class B dogs and cats in federally supported research to determine how frequently the animals are used. The results of the study, expected in 2009, will provide Congress with information regarding the value of class B dogs and cats in medical research.
The AVMA commended Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado for helping insert the Regional Centers of Excellence provision, which includes veterinary medicine. These centers will provide grants to veterinary schools to create centers of emphasis in food systems veterinary medicine.
On a related note, veterinary research relating to food-producing animals, food safety, and the environment were designated as a high priority for funding along with research aimed at improving information resources, curriculum, and clinical education of veterinary students with respect to food animal medicine and food safety.