VETS are threatening to go on strike on Friday in a move that would disrupt meat supplies in the run-up to Christmas.
The vets voted overwhelmingly for industrial action this week in a bid to safeguard lucrative work carrying out inspections at meat factories, which the Department of Agriculture wants to transfer to civil servants.
New figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal that individual vets earn up to €82,000 a year for carrying out health inspections at slaughterhouses. Around 656 private vets received payments from the department during 2010, with at least 20 vets earning over €50,000 for the work.
The top earner received €82,329 for this work, with three others getting €75,000 but the department refused to disclose the names of the top earners even though such information is routinely disclosed regarding state payments to other professionals, such as doctors, pharmacists and dentists.
Some of the high-earning vets also earned substantial amounts of up to €19,000 each from other state animal testing for TB and brucellosis, official figures show.
Vets currently earn €68 per hour for meat inspection duties, amounting to more than €500 for an eight-hour day and more for overtime.
Trade union Veterinary Ireland said this weekend that vets had balloted for industrial action up to and including strike action over the issue.
They said they had served one week's notice of this industrial action on the department meaning vets could go on strike at any or all 62 meat plants nationwide from Friday -- threatening meat supplies for the busy Christmas period.
The Department of Agriculture is attempting to transfer some carcass inspection duties to trained technical officials in a move it estimates could save up to €5m a year.
Transferring these duties to trained civil servants would be cheaper and in line with EU food safety practices in place in many other countries.
Private vets earned €17m for meat inspection duties last year, according to new figures obtained from a Freedom of Information request.
Veterinary Ireland said protecting vets' livelihoods was an important aspect of their opposition to the proposed changes, as without these payments many veterinary practices would not be viable.
However, Veterinary Ireland chief executive Finbarr Murphy said their primary objection was that vets' involvement in the State's meat inspection service ensured Ireland had the highest food safety standards in the world.
This was particularly important given that Ireland was the largest beef exporter in Europe going to 50 countries worldwide with over €1.5bn in sales.
"It is vital that we maintain our independent veterinary based Meat Inspection Service in Ireland. We are the third largest beef exporting country in the world and it is vital that we maintain our very high standards and reputation for food safety," he said.
Vets played a vital surveillance role in factories and it was a vet in a UK meat plant who had first spotted and diagnosed foot-and-mouth disease in the 2001 outbreak, he claimed.
Veterinary Ireland said it had been seeking a meeting with the department to discuss their objections.
The Department of Agriculture said it had no comment on the matter.
The IMPACT trade union, which represents civil servants, has been lobbying for this work to be transferred to trained officials for two years.