USDA investigates animal research center

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Department of Agriculture review committee that investigated the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska found no current mistreatment of animals.

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Department of Agriculture review committee that investigated the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska found no current mistreatment of animals.

But USDA officials say an investigation of the historical background of abuse charges in a New York Times story will be handled by the USDA Office of the Inspector General.

The Agricultural Research Service Animal Handling and Welfare Review Panel established by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack found no current problems with animal care at the center, but recommended some changes to procedures for project approvals.

The committee's report did not address the accounts of research activities to increase animal birth rates that were featured in the Jan. 19 Times article by Michael Moss.

Only one of the projects to increase birth rates and survivability of newborn animals cited in the article is still going on, a USDA official said. That project is the "easy care" or "pasture lambing" project in which the animals are bred so the rate of lamb survival will increase. It is a common practice on sheep ranches for ewes to give birth unaided in pastures rather than in buildings, but the Times noted the ewes and the lambs are subject to "predators, harsh weather and starvation."


The Times also said "Last Mother's Day [May 11, 2014] , at the height of the birthing season, two veterinarians struggled to sort through the weekend's toll: 25 rag-doll bodies. Five, abandoned by overtaxed mothers, had empty stomachs. Six had signs of pneumonia. Five had been savaged by coyotes."

But the review panel found that predator control at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center was appropriate, with a Great Pyrenees dog protecting each flock of sheep. The center also reported that when humans intervened with the newborn animals, the survival rate was lower. The committee found the animals to be healthy when they visited the facility in February.

When the five members of the review panel visited, they found no cases of animal abuse, but they did conclude that the USMARC did not have clear lines of authority in its cooperative relationship with the University of Nebraska.

The committee also said the facility's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee had not followed formal ARS procedures in approving research projects.

The committee did not find, however, that there were any research projects that should not have been approved.

The panel also found the USMARC did not have a "defined animal care training program" and recommended medical records for all animals at the facility be kept in an electronic system.

"This will assist in monitoring both individual and herd health of all animals, and provide assurance that animals are receiving the appropriate care," the report said.

'Disappointing' report


Humane Society of the United States President Wayne Pacelle said in a blog post the USDA panel's report on the center in Nebraska was "disappointing" and "anything but exhaustive."

Pacelle has said the USDA investigation should have dealt with past abuses, although USDA has said its inspector general will study those issues separately.

Pacelle was also critical of the way the USDA-appointed panel went about its work

"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," Pacelle wrote.

"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," he said. "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."

A spokesman for USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong told Agweek OIG senior officials began considering a potential review of issues at the USMARC facility upon reading the January New York Times article alleging animal abuses at the center, and that OIG also had discussions about USMARC with several Congressional offices and USDA.

Concerns about the allegations regarding USMARC were raised by leaders of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee during OIG's hearing on Feb. 13.

"At this time, OIG has assembled an audit team, and OIG officials are determining the scope and objectives of its planned audit inquiry of the USMARC center. OIG will initiate fieldwork this month," the spokesman said.


A Vilsack spokesman stressed the OIG is independent of the secretary.

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