Italy and France are known for taking their food seriously. Strict legislation governs what ingredients can be used in certain products, like cheeses and meats, and where they can be produced. And another key part of maintaining high-quality foods is the role that veterinarians play in ensuring that those foods—and the animals that produce them—remain healthy and safe.
Over the past two summers, students from Penn Vet have traveled to Europe to witness the work and training of veterinarians engaged in animal welfare and public health. The course that included their trip, International Animal Welfare, Behavior, and Public Policy, has given them a broader perspective on how these issues are handled outside of the United States.
“It really opened up my eyes to international veterinary medicine,” said Christina Murphy, a second-year Penn Vet student who participated in the course during the summer of 2016 and is helping to coordinate this summer’s trip. “It was nice to go abroad and see how progressive they are on the animal welfare front and how utilized and important veterinarians are in all facets of food safety.”
Kate Very and Christiana Fischer, now fourth-year students, developed the idea for an immersive course in Europe back in 2014.
“We wanted to put together a trip that would focus on animal welfare and also the legislative aspects of public policy, which are areas we don’t get much exposure to in school,” explained Very.
Very and Fischer applied for and won Penn Vet’s 2015 Student Inspiration Award, with $12,500 in prize money, which helped establish the course. Further support for the initial trip came from student fundraisers, a $5,000 grant from Assocarni/Zoetis, and collaboration with the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C. For the summer 2016 course, Ceva Animal Health stepped up as a sponsor with an $8,000 grant.
The students enlisted the help of Dr. Carlo Siracusa, Director of the Animal Behavior Service at Ryan Hospital, who has expertise in both animal behavior and welfare. He played a key role in coordinating and designing the trip, working with colleagues at the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale dell’Abruzzo e del Molise (IZS) in Teramo, Italy, where the bulk of the visit took place.
In 2015, the trip consisted of two weeks spent at IZS, where researchers developed a curriculum specifically for the Penn Vet students. Information was generally presented in English, but students also received help with translation when needed from Dr. Siracusa, IZS staff, and local students.
In addition to classroom lectures on animal welfare, food safety, epidemiology, and public policy, students took field trips to a slaughterhouse, a dairy farm, a poultry house, animal shelters, and a national park. In 2016, the Penn Vet students also spent time with veterinary students from the University of Teramo.
“It was so interesting to compare curricula and see what they’re learning about animal welfare in their classes,” Murphy said. “One of the best parts of traveling is being with locals, and we had the added benefit of having a lot of common ground with them, sharing a similar profession and passion.”
Building on the success of the inaugural trip, Siracusa decided to add a week and a second location to the course. In 2016, he took the students to IRSEA, the Institut de Recherche en Sémiochimie et Ethologie Appliquée, in the town of Apt in southeastern France. He also invited another Penn Vet instructor, Dr. Thomas Parsons, Associate Professor of Swine Production Medicine.
While IZS is a public institution where contact with animals is strictly regulated, IRSEA is a private lab, allowing the students more flexibility to get hands-on experiences. IRSEA scientists pursue basic research into animal cognition and welfare, specifically focusing on semiochemicals—substances that animals produce for the purposes of communication. Pheromones are perhaps the best known example, but other semiochemicals can influence animals by inspiring fear, attraction, appeasement, or repellence.
Research at IRSEA has led to the development of compounds for the express purpose of altering animal behavior. For example, Feliway, a product developed by Ceva, is a synthetic version of a natural semiochemical that soothes cats. Properties of other semiochemicals have been harnessed to improve the welfare of livestock and farm animals, such as pheromones that reduce aggression in pigs and stress in chickens.
During their time at IRSEA this past summer, students participated in small group discussions and visited labs where they observed—and sometimes participated in—evaluations of stress in a horse, research on how to reduce stress in working dogs, and tests of insect repellants based on semiochemicals.
While most veterinary school graduates in the United States go on to private clinical practice, Siracusa said that many graduates of European veterinary schools go on to careers in public health and food safety because veterinarians in Europe have a more prominent role in this realm. Murphy noted that slaughterhouses in Europe directly employ veterinarians to be on-site, for instance.
Animal welfare, too, occupies a more prominent place in European society, Siracusa added, with stricter legislation governing how animals are treated and transported.
“I think there is a public sensibility that is strongly in favor of animal welfare, and it probably also has to do with the fact that there is a longstanding food culture in many parts of Europe,” he explained. “The quality of food is a pillar of culture in a country like Italy, so this is a way to protect the quality of the product.”
As an example, Siracusa noted that while many American poultry farms chill chicken carcasses in chlorine baths to reduce pathogens, Europeans are turned off by this practice, and instead perform rigorous salmonella tests, discarding whole flocks if they test positive. As a result, European poultry is more expensive.
Murphy, who is interested in using her background in business in her future career in veterinary medicine, found the financial issues surrounding a firmer embrace of animal welfare compelling.
“Abroad I think they’ve realized the economic impacts of taking into account the welfare of the animal,” she said. “They’ll see higher milk production in animals that are well cared for. In swine they’ll see that the meat is of a higher quality because their transportation is done very carefully so as not to bruise the animals, so they can sell more of the meat, and to avoid causing a stress hormone response that can affect the taste.”
For this year’s class, Siracusa, with assistance from Murphy, is imagining another three-week trip, this time with an additional stop in Barcelona. Siracusa has contacts at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, as well as an animal shelter and the research institute IRTA, which focuses on agriculture, forestry, food, and fishing. In addition, Murphy is planning to arrange for some pre-trip lectures on animal welfare so that attendees will have a more solid grounding in U.S. policy before going abroad to compare and contrast.
“The Autonomous University of Barcelona is an important center for research on animal welfare,” Siracusa said. “They’ll be able to show us a system that is close to what we do here at Penn Vet, with a lot of clinics, a lot of small animals, and with a focus on farm animal welfare, too.”
An underlying thrust of the course is One Health—animal welfare being a prime example of how human health, environmental health, and animal well-being are closely connected.
“This program focuses on not just the animals, but the interaction of animal species with human health, both physical and psychological,” Siracusa said. “Students have the chance to really see how the safety and quality of a food product depends on the safety and quality of animal care.”
“We see that veterinarians really do have an impact on things like the international food supply,” added Murphy. “At the end of the day, it’s all One Health.”