The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a disappointing report today about the federally-funded, Nebraska-based U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC), which was the focus of a searing and infuriating New York Times investigative piece by Michael Moss published just over a month ago. The Times report documented scientists at the Center doing a variety of gruesome experiments, including locking pigs in steam chambers until they died, breeding calves born with “deformed vaginas” and tangled legs, and leaving newborn lambs to starve, freeze, or, get battered to death by hail. The Times got wind of these abusive experiments from a brave whistleblowing veterinarian at the Center, Dr. Jim Keen. I met with Dr. Keen in Nebraska a few weeks ago, and he told me that even though The Times’ report was highly detailed and shocking, there were additional abuses that didn’t even make it into the article. The information that Dr. Keen provided to The Times was corroborated by many others who have worked at the Center.
The USDA report released today – which was anything but exhaustive – acknowledges a few of those failings. The report finds that the Center had a woefully inadequate Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee; lacked a formal training process, including a whistleblower policy; and the extensive cooperation agreement between the Center and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln lacks clarity with regards to authority and responsibility for animal care. It also rightly recommends that the Center’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee should review the use of all vertebrate animals at the facility. We agree with these recommendations, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has ordered immediate implementation of them.
But for the most part, today’s report sidesteps a serious look at past abuses at the Center – neither affirming nor denying them. The report’s authors based many of their observations off a pre-announced three-day tour of the Center, over a month after The New York Times story broke, in which they found no ongoing animal abuse. That the Center’s staff didn’t abuse animals for a three-day period, during which they knew they were under intense observation, tells us nothing about their commitment to animal welfare.
What was needed was not a white-glove tour, but a forensic look into how appalling abuses were allowed to occur at the Center and others like it, and whether the leadership and the researchers who abused animals there should be retained. The USDA has promised there will be a phase two examination of all farm animal research conducted by the Agricultural Research Service, based on visits to three to five other federally-funded facilities. We hope that during those visits the USDA will conduct more rigorous unannounced inspections, and take a serious look at the value and animal care at every one of the estimated 40 ARS facilities conducting experiments on farm animals.
And while we’re glad that the USDA is following up on The Times investigation, today’s report misses a larger point. Why is our government using taxpayer money to fund productivity experiments for the factory farming industry? Essentially every other industry has to do its own research and development, but for agribusiness the USDA runs a network of centers focused not on improving animal welfare or aiding the environment, but simply on boosting agribusiness profits. The industry is fully capable of funding its own research. And neither the government nor private industry should be funding any research that is wasteful of animal life, or causes animals needless torment.
While the report calls for more rigorous oversight, it stops short of recommending USDA oversight under the Animal Welfare Act. This reflects a gaping hole in the Act, which excludes farm animals used for agricultural research. Right now, a private or university laboratory scientist researching how to cure cancer has to comply with at least the minimal standards of the Animal Welfare Act, but a federal government scientist researching how to breed a more profitable pig doesn’t have to comply with any animal welfare standards at all. That’s indefensible, inconsistent, and wrong-headed. The federal government should adhere to rules that it imposes on other actors within the realm of laboratory experiments on animals.
The Animal Welfare in Agricultural Research Endeavors (AWARE) Act, led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Vern Buchanan (R-FL), and Louise Slaughter (D-NY)and Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), would close the loophole that exempts this kind of research from any animal welfare oversight. Congress should pass this legislation. And if Congress fails to act, the USDA should extend AWA protections to animals used in these forms of research. Only that action – and not another whitewash report – will prevent future abuses at facilities like the USMARC.