OPVs—at the coalface

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OPVThey are the guardians of the food production industry, yet few understand the role of the OPV. But, as Tracey Porter writes, plans are now afoot to allow these vets a chance to shine.

Let’s be honest, as far as sexy career choices go, an abattoir monitor is probably not high on the list. In the court of public opinion, examining animals before and after slaughter to check for disease, certifying that the meat produced is suitable for human consumption and ensuring that staff maintain the highest standards of ethical, legal and safe practice is neither as exciting nor emotionally charged as witnessing Rover the retriever being brought back from the brink. 

Not that any of that mattered one jot to West Australian veterinarian Dr Samson Lui when he decided to become an OPV [on-plant veterinarian] in Esperance 18 months ago.

A veterinary officer for the food service group at the Department of Agriculture, Dr Lui’s role as an OPV encompasses responsibility for the examination of animals at pre-slaughter to make sure they are fit and free from obvious disease and overall responsibility for hygiene in the abattoir. He must also ensure audit compliance with fit-to-load regulations and monitor that cohorts of animals are managed ethically pre-slaughter.

In addition, once the carcass is on the chain it is the OPVs job to inspect it for signs of disease that may prevent the meat from entering the food chain.

Dr Lui says he was drawn to a public health role as work as an OPV offered better job security, a higher rate of pay and more stable hours than had he becoming a vet in a private practice. Upon graduating two years ago, the 28-year-old initially spent four months working at the Australian Neuroscience Research Institute as a vet research assistant prior to accepting his role with the government department but now says public health is where he sees his future.

He says it is immensely rewarding knowing he and his team have contributed to promoting food safety and Australian standards. “Speaking personally, working as an OPV cultivates my skills in leadership and management. It offers rewarding career prospects and the Department of Agriculture also offers opportunities and support for continuing education.”

Having finished his studies at Perth’s Murdoch University in 2013, Dr Lui was one of the first graduates of a 12-week intensive course offered only to finalyear veterinary students eager to pursue a career in animal welfare, public health and food safety. Launched after the department identified a critical shortage of veterinarians motivated to undertake careers in this non-traditional type of veterinary practice, the course is run by the university’s School of Veterinary and Life Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine and is believed to be the only accredited provider in the country offering a qualification of this nature.

To date, nine students have completed the course, which is funded by the department, with six going on to take up positions as OPVs, overseeing animal welfare and food safety in export abattoirs across the country. Three students are enrolled in the program in 2015, however it is understood other universities may be considering introducing a similar type of qualification.

Murdoch University Senior Lecturer in Production Animal Health and Welfare, Dr Michael Lawrence, who leads the research, teaching and farm animal clinical services team, says the program gives students the opportunity to learn theory—namely the relevant legislation—and the key aspects of public health, food safety and animal welfare. He says it is by shadowing the OPVs at abattoirs that the student vets learn all the practical skills the job requires. Modules covered in the course range from knife sharpening and maintenance to auditing principles and export control legislation.

“They are assessed by senior OPVs already working at abattoirs and senior department veterinary staff,” says Dr Lawrence. “The students finish the course qualified to work as an OPV following an induction into the department. The final part of the training is six months on-the-job experience after graduation.”

He says this type of training offers a win/win solution for those involved. The department benefits greatly from a steady stream of OPVs to employ, aiding succession planning as more experienced vets currently in these roles near retirement. While for the students it offers expanded career opportunities. “The starting salary for these roles is generally higher than that of a vet going into a standard practice and the training is short circuited by months by having this opportunity while they are still students.”

Agribusiness professional Ed Dunn, of the Food Division of the Department of Agriculture, says the program offers the chance to access veterinarians, who are inspection and regulation ready, to mitigate the problems of staff shortages in the future. “The meat industry will have the opportunity to draw on this resource also if markets begin to demand further integration of the abattoir with the supplier of slaughter animals.”

Currently the qualification has a three-year deadline affiliated with it via graduates entering employment with the Department after that period required to retake the training modules.Despite the success of the program and the gradual change in student attitudes towards the role, Dr Lawrence says some personality types are more suited to OPV work than others. “OPVs are dedicated (long hours) and details-oriented. They have to pick up every small difference from the normal lest it be a significant problem. The have an inherently analytical way of thinking. “Abattoir work is not for everyone. It’s tiring and can be confronting. But not every vet is destined for the consulting room and this job suits a few who have an interest in public health and animal welfare.”

For Dr Lui, however, the positives outweigh the negatives. He says as well as allowing him to gain exposure within a different industry, working as an OPV has also offered unexpected rewards. “Personally it has cultivated my skills in leadership and management and challenged my skills in critical thinking. I’ve also been surprised by the extent of the communication skills my role requires. Because an abattoir is a big place… and you are dealing with people with all sorts of backgrounds most of who do not have tertiary or scientific backgrounds, I have had to learn to think from a different perspective to ensure we get the desired outcome and keep everyone onside.”

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