AWI Exposes Whitewashing of Animal Abuse at USDA Research Labs

When AWI discovered in July that the first unannounced inspection of the US Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) resulted in four citations for lack of adequate veterinary care, inadequate handling of animals with heat distress, and lack of adequate separation among pigs—all causing significant animal suffering—we were appalled. After all, it was the January 2015 New York Times exposé of this facility that ignited a public firestorm and led Congress to withhold 5 percent ($57 million) of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) budget because of the USDA’s “wholly inadequate public response” to the allegations and the department’s delinquency in providing Congress with necessary information.

Subsequently, the ARS was pressured into allowing the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to begin conducting unannounced inspections at all ARS facilities, even though these labs are not subject to APHIS jurisdiction. In August 2015, APHIS began to conduct pre-compliance reviews of all ARS labs, walking them through how to “successfully operate under the inspection framework.” Yet, the very facility that had caused the firestorm could not come close to passing its first inspection.

But MARC was not alone. AWI has discovered what we believe are systemic animal welfare issues at multiple ARS labs. As of December 11, APHIS had documented 16 citations at 12 of ARS’s 35 labs. But the numbers don’t give the full story; the nature and severity of the incidents—and the response by the ARS—are even more telling.

Role of the IACUC

Proper oversight by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at each research facility is crucial to the entire concept of animal welfare compliance. As Senator Robert Dole, who sponsored the 1985 Amendments to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that created the mandate for IACUCs, stated, “Veterinary inspectors from the US Department of Agriculture cannot be present on a daily basis. However, their enforcement capability can and should be enhanced by the Institutional Animal Committee.” The USDA stated in the Federal Register, after citing Senator Dole’s comments above, that “the Act … relies on the facility to monitor its own house.”

At ARS facilities, IACUC reviews involve forms containing 11 checkboxes indicating various aspects of compliance. One box seeks to confirm that an attending veterinarian (AV) is on hand to ensure that “an adequate program of veterinary care has been established” and that “animals are observed daily, unless less frequent observation is specifically approved by the IACUC.”

Another box seeks confirmation that “animals are not abused and are handled in a manner that is expeditious and careful not to cause trauma, overheating, excessive cooling, stress, physical harm or unnecessary discomfort.”

APHIS inspections directly contradict IACUC reviews

In the span of four months—May through September 2017—APHIS documented “critical” citations at four separate ARS labs, all involving horrible animal suffering and deaths. One of these citations was documented on May 18 at the Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory in East Lansing, Michigan, where 15 ducks were found dead on May 12 due to dehydration. A necropsy report showed the severity of signs “would be consistent with multiple days without access to water.”

This incident is deeply disturbing, but perhaps the most damning evidence of oversight failure comes from the three other labs receiving critical citations from APHIS. At these facilities, the ARS IACUC review forms were all checked off to indicate everything was in order—even though the review forms were dated within days of inspections documenting horrific deaths.

A July 26 inspection at the Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah, noted that 32 quail chicks were found cooked to death earlier that month. The room had overheated to 130 degrees, which can cause “hyperthermia, pain, suffering, and death.” Inspectors stated that they could not determine if daily observation and monitoring of animal health was being conducted for all animals, and that the records for animals being treated were not complete.

Yet a spotless IACUC review for this facility was dated a mere two days after the critical APHIS inspection. The Logan Herald Journal quoted a USDA official saying that it was “in the realm of possibility” that corrections were made in two days. This is absurd, given that the inspection report gave a December 26 correction date for the systemic veterinary care issues found, a five-month span that evidently contemplated an extended rectification process.

At Fort Keogh, a rangeland beef cattle research facility in Miles City, Montana, an August 25 IACUC review was stellar. On September 7, however, APHIS inspectors found a dehydrated calf at 11:45 a.m. who was weak, lethargic with sunken eyes, and unable to rise when prompted. Treatment for coccidiosis had ended two days prior, and the lab had not contacted the AV about the calf’s condition. Inspectors were told at 4:00 p.m. that the calf had died. The inspection report even included an IACUC citation, stating that “the IACUC did not conduct appropriate reviews of animal activities for all protocols to ensure that investigators are following the approved protocol.”

A September 19 inspection at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa, noted that 22 young turkeys (“poults”) approximately two weeks old were found dead on September 1, several others appeared severely depressed, and 16 more died by September 2 (38 dead out of a flock of 53). The temperature was 64 degrees, far too cold for poults. Pathology reports found dehydration and exhaustion caused by malnutrition. The lab’s IACUC had not been notified of these deaths. The inspection noted that the facility was understaffed. Yet, an “all is well” IACUC review was dated August 31, one day before the poults were found dead or dying.

Obviously, these ARS IACUC “reviews” are a sham, making a mockery of animal welfare compliance and the law, not to mention transparency toward the public. What is clear is that the current situation, where APHIS conducts inspections at ARS labs but has no enforcement authority, is simply untenable. Agricultural research animals are already among the animals excluded from the minimal protections of the Animal Welfare Act. In light of these enormous loopholes and lack of real oversight, AWI strongly believes that the AWA must be amended to allow meaningful enforcement actions—and concomitant deterrence—at all federal research facilities that experiment on warm-blooded animals.