Lawmakers blast USDA handling of meat research center

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, March 24, 2015 - Republicans and Democrats slammed the Agriculture Department over allegations of abuse at a livestock research facility in Nebraska and accused agency officials of stonewalling lawmakers' requests for information.

“It sounds like it was a house of horrors that was going on there,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., referring to allegations about the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center contained in a New York Times article published in January.

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Rooney, one of several members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee who grilled USDA officials about the issue, said the allegations cast the cattle industry in a bad light. The idea that the research highlighted in the article was undertaken at the industry's request was “bull-you-know-what,” Rooney said.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., said the article was “hard to read” and a “sad testament” to USDA research.

The subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Sam Farr of California, took officials to task for declining to answer questions from the subcommittee's staff. “You're really trying to hide this story. You're trying to bury it,” he said.

According to the article, numerous calves, piglets and lambs have died in experiments at the 37,000-acre facility designed to find methods of increasing birth rates and reducing production costs. Cattle, for example, have been bred to produce twins and triplets, “which often emerge weakened or deformed, dying in such numbers that even meat producers have been repulsed,” the article alleged.

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Catherine Woteki, USDA's undersecretary for research, education and economics, vigorously defended the facility's current practices and emphasized that the allegations had not been proven and were the subject of an ongoing investigation by the department's inspector general.

The draft report of a review panel that checked over the center after the article was published “clearly states that animals are being treated well, that they found no evidence of abuse,” she told the panel. An animal-care committee also is being re-established to provide oversight at the facility's research projects.

She said the department's response to the subcommittee's questions was based on internal discussions with USDA's general counsel and congressional relations team.

The department on March 8 announced that a moratorium on new research projects conducted at the facility will remain in place until new procedures ensuring greater accountability for animal welfare are fully implemented.

The administrator of USDA's Agricultural Research Service, which owns the facility, objected to suggestions that the review panel had given USDA time to clean up problems at the center before investigating practices there. "You cannot undo damage to animals that has been done," said Chavonda Jacobs-Young. "That's nothing that can turn on a dime."

But the department hasn't gone nearly far enough for members of the subcommittee. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., pressed Woteki to enroll the Nebraska facility in an organization that accredits public and private laboratories, including the University of Nebraska, which conducts some research at the facility, and USDA's research facility at Beltsville, Maryland.

“We've got some serious issues here, my friends,” DeLauro told Woteki. “That was a devastating article and to not have any real responses and action plans and the determination of where we're going from here and to … stonewall staff in terms of getting responses I think is pretty irresponsible."

The letters between the department and the subcommittee were not released. The chairman of the subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., told Woteki USDA's response was "basically a recap" of the Times article.

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