by Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) — A panel of outside researchers declared in a draft report Monday they found no evidence of current animal abuse or mistreatment at a USDA animal and meat research facility in Nebraska.
Despite no evidence of current animal abuse, USDA still ordered any new research projects at the facility not be started until some new procedures are implemented.
The report examined current practices at USDA's Meat Animal Research Center outside of Clay Center, Neb., following allegations in the New York Times of animal abuse at the facility. The article in January sparked outrage from some animal-rights activists and led Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to call for a quick review of the facility.
A four-member panel visited the research center over a two-day period Feb. 24-26 and gave the facility a clean bill of health. “Without exception, the panel observed healthy and well-cared-for animals,” the panel' report stated. “As a rule, animals were handled with care and professionalism by dedicated staff members. No instances of animal abuse, misuse or mistreatment were observed.”
MARC is about a 33,000-acre research facility outside of Clay Center that at one time had been a naval ammunition depot. MARC, which is part of the Agricultural Research Service (ARC), has cattle, hogs and sheep and, all told, about 30,000 animals. The facility frequently partners with researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which is about 90 miles east of the research center. MARC also partners with researchers using livestock industry checkoff dollars for research on meat production and animal diseases.
The report released Monday didn't specifically address allegations made in a New York Times article in January about death losses and animal care at the facility. The Times piece cited email from researchers and a whistleblower to question deaths at the facility involving research on lamb calving and sow breeding. Researchers complained about the lack of protection for sheep; high death losses were recorded for newborns due to predators, particularly coyotes.
A USDA official, speaking on background Monday to reporters, said the USDA Office of Inspector General is investigating the specific allegations raised in the New York Times article. Yet, Vilsack wanted a separate review to examine what's going on at MARC now.
DTN tried to reach one of the Nebraska veterinarians who raised concerns about MARC in the January news article, but did not receive an immediate response on Monday.
Issues raised in the January NYT article included death losses coming from an “easy-care” pasture lambing project that continues today. The article quoted veterinarians complaining about high death losses from predators. Monday, the USDA official the pasture lambing continues and reviewers saw fencing and shepherd dogs with the flocks of sheep to help manage predators. MARC experts said human intervention can actually lead to higher death losses than letting the sheep manage themselves in the pasture.
The Times article in January stated one of the biggest issues at MARC is “a reoccurring failure to fully consider the pain that animals suffer during experiments, or in everyday life at the center. Some employees blamed inadequate training or budgets; others pointed to friction between scientists bent on their research and veterinarians who take an oath to protect animals.”
The January article also noted the decline in veterinarians staffing the facility. At one time, at least six scientists were degreed veterinarians. As of last year, one veterinarian oversees all the care of an estimated 30,000 animals on the facility.
Responding to the report, Vilsack said in a statement Monday that USDA considers animal welfare to be a serious matter. He said he was directing MARC and ARS staff to implement the report's recommendations immediately.
“It is important to note that the independent review did not find mistreatment of animals presently taking place at the MARC Center,” Vilsack said.
The review team had a handful of recommendations for MARC staff to tighten up procedures around the facility. For instance, MARC should have written agreements with the University of Nebraska or other research partners to clearly define who is responsible for animal care and use in research and teaching.
The facility should also develop a training program to document the handling and use of animals in research. Such a program would also include how to report animal-welfare problems as well as informing people about “whistleblower” policies.
The facility should also expand its electronic database to better document research and treatment of all species at the facility, the review team recommended.
Vilsack ordered new procedures and accountability for the MARC Center's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee charged with overseeing and approving MARC research projects and ensuring humane treatment of animals within the facility. The review team concluded the committee was too informal and did a poor job documenting its work and meeting discussions. That committee should also conduct more inspections of areas where animals are held, handled or used. No new research projects can begin at MARC until these new procedures are fully implemented.
Earlier, Vilsack had the ARS name an animal ombudsman. ARS also is updating reporting procedures to ensure animal welfare concerns are brought forward for action. He also directed ARS to review its training curriculum to ensure all employees are properly versed on humane animal treatment, and continue to engage in an ongoing examination of other ways to improve animal welfare.
The review team's report also will have a 10-day comment period before a March 18 webcast meeting by the review team to again discuss their report and the public comments.
The public can review the report on the Federal Register or at www.ree.usda.gov.
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