In January, with an inside view from a long-serving, whistleblowing veterinarian, The New York Times exposed appallingly cruel and unnecessary experimentation on farm animals at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), a government-run laboratory in Nebraska. Reporter Michael Moss documented scientists at the Center 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 (all in a misguided attempt to produce “easy care” sheep).
It was another case of the federal government pouring millions of dollars into research and development for the benefit of industrial agriculture. But the injury was compounded when we realized that desensitized scientists at the facility had been running amok for years – abusing animals, disregarding the limited rules in place to govern their conduct, and misusing tax dollars in the process, with U.S. Department of Agriculture leaders not paying the least bit of attention.
In the months since, The HSUS has teamed up with lawmakers to introduce bills designed to crack down on the abuse. All the pressure has stirred the USDA itself to institute some changes, including the appointment of the agency’s first animal welfare ombudsman, an update to the USDA’s Animal Welfare Action Plan, and the establishment of an “Animal Handling and Welfare Review Panel” to review practices at some agriculture research facilities.
Now Congress has weighed in, and I am pleased to report some tangible outcomes to you. Both the House and Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittees are demanding higher standards of animal care at the USDA, and a strict accounting of the agency’s actions in overseeing the U.S. MARC. On the House side, Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., and ranking member Sam Farr, D-Calif., included language in the annual appropriations bill tying more than $55 million of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) budget to significant and verifiable improvements to the agency’s animal welfare and oversight policies. They also called for Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) inspections of U.S. MARC and other USDA facilities conducting animal research, and directed the ARS to provide regular reports to the House and Senate appropriations committees on the agency’s work to improve compliance with animal welfare regulations.
The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, in its bill released last week, added language that directs ARS to apply the standards of the Animal Welfare Act at all of its research labs. This language was championed by Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., Tom Udall, D-N.M., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. Like the House bill, the Senate also directed APHIS to inspect ARS facilities, and called for regular reports from the USDA to appropriators on the agency’s animal welfare reforms.
We will continue to work with our allies in Congress to ensure these strong provisions are retained in any final appropriations package.
The USDA’s updated Animal Welfare Action Plan outlines changes in policy, training and oversight throughout ARS. One of the most noteworthy developments is an inspection pilot program between ARS and APHIS, whereby ARS will voluntarily register its animal research locations with APHIS, and submit to periodic reviews of how it uses and cares for animals at those locations. This added oversight will hopefully ensure animal welfare and the proper functioning of institutional animal care and use committees, which are tasked with reviewing animal research protocols and ensuring minimization of pain and distress to the animals, among other things.
This plan also calls for an Office of Inspector General audit, including examination of the specific allegations made in The New York Times exposé. The independent review has been expedited and we look forward to the results, which are anticipated in January 2016.
The HSUS welcomes all of these changes, but more are needed to ensure that the gruesome set of abuses at the U.S. MARC are not replicated there or at the other 50 or so ARS facilities. The government needs to stop funding cruel and pointless research practices aimed at making an already coarse and inhumane system of factory farming even more harsh for the animals. And Congress should pass the AWARE Act, introduced by Senators Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., to apply the Animal Welfare Act to farm animals at federal ARS facilities like U.S. MARC. Please urge your federal legislators to cosponsor the AWARE Act today.