MARC Continues to Feel the Heat

As reported in the Winter 2015 Quarterly, USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), in Clay Center, Nebraska, has come under intense scrutiny after a January 19 article in The New York Times described indefensible acts that have taken place at MARC over the past several decades. These egregious acts included leaving newborn lambs to die of starvation, exposure, and predation; conducting breeding experiments that caused deformities in calves; and intentionally withholding treatment from suffering animals against the recommendations of veterinarians—all to accomplish the stated objective of “increasing the efficiency of production while maintaining a lean, high quality product.”

AWI wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, expressing our alarm and recommending that an immediate investigation be undertaken, with appropriate corrective action, including possible closure of the facility. AWI’s membership also responded, sending thousands of letters to Sec. Vilsack and members of Congress demanding action. The allegations have clearly touched a public nerve, with alarm voiced from disparate sectors, including animal protection groups, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and even the Western Ag Reporter, an agricultural trade paper.

Congress is equally outraged by the allegations. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), along with eight other senators, wrote to Sec. Vilsack calling for an immediate investigation and report to Congress. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to remove the exemptions from the Animal Welfare Act for agricultural research (see page 20).

Sec. Vilsack responded to the outcry by convening a four-member independent panel, comprised of veterinarians and academicians. The panel was charged with reviewing USDA policies and procedures for ensuring the care and well-being of livestock in research, visiting MARC to inspect the facilities, reviewing the institutional oversight of research, and assessing the training of staff in the care and handling of animals.

The panel conducted a superficial site visit coordinated well in advance with MARC officials. On March 9, the panel released its findings and recommendations. Not surprisingly, given its charge and the nature of its “inspection,” the panel found no current instances of mistreatment of animals and deemed the facilities acceptable. The panel did find that the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at MARC was not providing adequate oversight of research. While there appeared to be “experimental outlines” (as opposed to protocols), which were shown to the IACUC, there was no evidence that even these “outlines” were formally reviewed and approved, and there was no indication that the committee even met. These findings demonstrated that the necessary oversight was not in place to ensure the health and welfare of the animals.

Notably absent from the panel’s charge was any mandate to look into the findings in The New York Times article. The panel only reviewed research processes. It did not review research practice—what actually happens to the animals during experiments at MARC. Ensuring that the appropriate mechanisms for research oversight are (or aren’t) in place does not account for a culture that is counter to animal care and welfare standards, as described in the Times. The allegations of unconscionable animal care must be investigated, preferably by a truly independent panel comprised of people knowledgeable about farm animal care and welfare.

The USDA did announce, subsequently, that an investigation of the abuse charges will be handled by the USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The agency told Reuters that OIG officials are currently “‘determining the scope and objectives of their planned audit inquiry’” into the MARC facility. Meanwhile, the USDA has ordered a moratorium on all new research projects until MARC strengthens its procedures and internal oversight in accordance with the panel's recommendation.

Sec. Vilsack already has it within his power to enact more immediate changes to improve research oversight and animal welfare and should utilize them. He should mandate unannounced inspections at all USDA facilities conducting animal research, to ensure compliance with the AWA. The USDA facilities must be made to comply with the same AWA regulations as all other institutions that conduct research on animals. This includes rigorous oversight by IACUCs—which need to include a public member who has a record of commitment to animal welfare.

Amidst the serious allegations, MARC officials continue to defend their work as fulfilling a need to feed a growing world population, even as consumers increasingly demand that farm animals be treated humanely. Developing leaner pork by weaning piglets at 10 days old versus the 21–28 days required by some retailers, or redesigning sheep so that they give birth to multiple lambs in the field, resulting in many lambs suffering and dying (even as 90 percent of sheep farmers provide their birthing ewes with sheltering structures, according to a 2010 USDA survey), are just two of many examples of how MARC researchers are overstepping accepted boundaries in order to sacrifice animal welfare to economics.

Also troubling has been the relationship between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and MARC (echoed in the findings of the independent panel). UNL, until recently, owned the animals at MARC. As noted in The New York Times article, in 2013, the university quietly transferred ownership of most of the animals to the center. Both UNL and MARC stated this was for financial reasons, but it was posited by a member of the university’s own IACUC that the transfer was made because the university was seeking accreditation through the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC). Had the university retained the animals, AAALAC auditors would be empowered to conduct animal welfare inspections at MARC—a scenario deemed unacceptable to MARC officials.

Regardless of ownership, the long-standing relationship between UNL and MARC bears investigation. As the editor of the Western Ag Reporter stated, “Administrators, researchers, and employees who willfully allow animals to suffer and die should be summarily dismissed, charged criminally, and NEVER allowed near animals or the livestock industry or a taxpayer-subsidized paycheck again. Anything less is not only unethical and immoral but also sends a miserable message to the general public that the industry will tolerate this sort of behavior.”

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