USDA bars new research at meat animal research center

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, March 9, 2015 - The USDA today announced a moratorium on new animal research projects conducted at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in southern Nebraska that will remain in place until new procedures ensuring greater accountability for animal welfare are fully implemented.

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The moratorium was announced at the same time as the draft results of an independent review of the agency were released. The review was ordered by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack following a New York Times story that said staff at the facility had failed to follow animal welfare standards in the treatment of cows, pigs and sheep in some instances going back to 1985. 

The review faulted the committee charged with overseeing animal care with failing to properly oversee those operations and other administrative shortcomings.

“As we move forward to update policies and practices at this and other facilities within USDA's research purview, we also recognize the importance of the work performed at the MARC center to the American agricultural economy, consumers and food safety systems,” Vilsack said in a statement. “However, it is imperative that all USDA research activities be carried out in a manner consistent with our high standards for humane and responsible treatment of animals in our care.”

Additionally, “It is important to note that the independent review did not find mistreatment of animals presently taking place at the MARC center,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack directed that following five actions be taken immediately:

1. Strengthening procedures and accountability for the MARC Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee charged with overseeing and approving MARC research projects and ensuring humane treatment of animals within the facility (and not allowing any new research projects to begin at the Center until these new procedures are fully implemented);

2. Updating electronic record-keeping practices at all facilities to ensure all animals are being appropriately monitored and cared for;

3. Updating training across all research facilities to ensure it is uniform, documented and meets USDA's standards for animal welfare;

4. Ensuring that there are clear lines of authority established for USDA and the University of Nebraska in the operation and management of the facility and its staff;

5. And ensuring that all animals in USDA research facilities are treated to uniformly high standards.

When he ordered the review, Vilsack also directed the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) to name the first ever Animal Ombudsman and ARS is updating reporting procedures to ensure animal welfare concerns are brought forward for action.

MARC, which currently houses 30,000 animals, is operated under a cooperative agreement between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln - which is responsible for building maintenance and operations - and the federal government, whose employees at MARC are “directly involved in the administration and conduct of research activities,” USDA said. That agreement does not explicitly attribute animal welfare responsibilities to either party.

Allegations of animal abuse and neglect at MARC surfaced in mid-January. The New York Times said its investigation found several inhumane breeding programs and episodes of violent animal mistreatment at the facility, including the starvation of 6,500 animals and more than 625 animal deaths due to mastitis - a painful, but treatable, infection of the udder - since 1985.

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Following the Times report, USDA ordered MARC, which currently houses 30,000 animals - predominately sheep, pigs and cows - to undergo a 60-day independent review of its record-keeping system, accountability procedures and animal welfare standards.

The draft review released today will be open to public comment through March 18. The Agricultural Research Service panel which conducted the review found “without exception… healthy and well-cared for animals… handled with care and professionalism by dedicated staff members.”

Archie Clutter, dean of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln's Agricultural Research Division and director of its Agriculture Experiment Station, said “the animal care at the (MARC) center is consistent with the (ARS) report.”

“We have the highest quality of animal care accreditation… across all of our programs, including livestock,” Clutter told Agri-Pulse. That accreditation - from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International - was secured after a thorough review of all the research facility's projects and collaborative projects, he said.

Clutter said the Times article that implicated MARC in animal mistreatment was “not consistent with our work or experience with the center.”

MARC is also home to the Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center.

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