Sophie Deleu is at the helm of the Royal Dutch Society for Veterinary Medicine. According to her, the essence of the profession of a veterinarian is: care for the well-being of animals, with an eye for public health and food safety. ‘Ultimately, the consumer also determines whether that care is provided.’
Cheap animal products in the supermarket are a thorn in Sophie Deleu’s side. ‘The craftsmanship, space and time required to keep animals, what it really costs to keep them healthy and improve their welfare … Producing and selling as cheaply as possible is asking for problems and I sometimes feel like that powerless, ‘says the chairman of the Royal Dutch Veterinary Society (KNMvD), who took office in April.
Veterinarians in practice sometimes face conflicting issues
Sophie Deleu, chairman of the KNMvD
54-year-old Deleu also sees a cautious, hopeful turnaround with labels such as Beter Leven, new market concepts that focus on the animal and the growing attention for the domestic market. ‘In my view, current livestock farming is a mammoth tanker. And as a society we think we can change course like a speedboat. But of course it doesn’t work that way. ‘
The further improvement of animal welfare and animal health in livestock farming requires an integrated approach, she says. ‘With vets and other farm visitors who stand around the farmer as a team.’
The role of the veterinarian is changing: to administer less medicines and to advise more often on prevention. Does this also shift the responsibility for animal health?
‘The owner of animals, ie the farmer, is primarily responsible for this. We as veterinarians have a legal duty of care. So we take care of animal health and welfare. But we don’t make choices about investments in housing, staff training or any other type of feed. While these kinds of measures often form the basis for the health and welfare of the animals. ‘
You started as KNMvD chairman in April. What did you notice most within the professional organization?
‘Fragmentation and division among veterinarians. Mutual solidarity and membership of a professional organization are no longer as self-evident as in the past and we as an association are struggling with that. Just like many other member organizations.
‘What has not really changed, but does deserve joint attention, is that veterinarians in practice are faced with complex and sometimes even conflicting issues, such as an announced cattle feed measure to reduce nitrogen. So cooperation is important. ‘
Did you also share your comment that cows and calves should not be the victim of superficial nitrogen policy with the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality?
‘Hell yes. And I was supported in this by our supporters. Possible damage to the health of the cows for building permits, you really can’t do that. Still, I don’t want to cheer too soon now that the measure has been canceled for the time being, because which nitrogen measures are still to come? ‘
Has the division among veterinarians been fueled by the arrival of international players on the market who have many Dutch practices under their wing?
‘In any case, it makes the differences with a partnership or the independent veterinary practice greater, partly because more and more veterinarians are now employed. Employers also partly take care of matters such as in-service training and quality control. ‘
Is the quality or independence of the vet under pressure as a result?
‘I don’t have that impression. On a personal level, the veterinarian remains the professional expert advisor and we work well with the major employers on numerous issues. ‘
Yet behind those parties are large investors and food groups such as Mars and Nestlé. Aren’t they mainly looking for profit?
‘They seem to work according to a mechanism whereby companies have to keep growing. And the question is how that will develop in the future. But whether this also makes livestock farmers more expensive for care? I doubt that. Concerns mainly focus on the market for companion animals and horses.
‘We also have an open market where you can choose your own vet. So every practice values satisfied customers. Collaborating combinations of livestock farms themselves are also becoming increasingly larger players. ‘
Is this trend a concern for animal health?
‘The fact is that the financial interests are increasing. All measures for extra animal health and animal welfare cost money. Cattle farmers know better than anyone that healthy animals give the best production, but in practice the financial considerations can sometimes cause tension with the veterinarian.
‘We can demonstrate that prevention pays off, but unfortunately we cannot guarantee that health problems will not occur.’
Within the CowMonitor, the veterinarian checks the dairy farmer for hygiene measures. How do you feel about that?
‘Because of the desired integrated approach, we do not want to be a police officer for the farmer, but rather a trusted advisor. That is why it is important to make good agreements about this controlling role.
‘The Stichting Geborgde Dierenarts’ Foundation is responsible for the implementation of this European policy. I expect she will take a position on this shortly. ‘
In recent years, the KNMvD has rarely sought out the social debate. Is that going to change under your leadership?
‘We base our advice on scientific knowledge and sometimes it is important to give an opinion. So we will indeed be talking more often. ‘
Deleu wants to increase the visibility of veterinarians
Sophie Deleu started her career as a veterinarian for farm animals. After a year of practical experience, she wanted to broaden herself outside the veterinary world. For example, she worked for RIVM for many years, including as head of the National Knowledge Center for Alternatives to Animal Experiments. Since this spring, Deleu has returned to the professional field as the new chairman of the Royal Dutch Society for Veterinary Medicine. She has been appointed for three years. Deleu sees increasing the visibility of veterinarians in the entire chain as one of its most important spearheads. In addition, she wants to cooperate fully with the government, knowledge institutions and related professional associations to gather more knowledge about animal health and animal welfare. ‘In addition to caring for animals, it is also an important task for veterinarians to have an eye for human public health and food safety,’ emphasizes Deleu.