WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2015 - USDA’s Inspector General has filed an interim report on its investigation into a New York Times story in January that alleged instances of animal abuse at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) in Clay Center, Nebraska. The center is operated by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in collaboration with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL).

The IG says its investigators are trying to determine the veracity of 33 statements that it was able to identify in the New York Times story, which was titled “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit.” Its report includes interim observations on about two-thirds of those statements and said it had no observations at this time on the rest.

According to the IG, the report – which was dated Sept. 28 but received little notice -- reflects fieldwork at USMARC, a review of documents related to the facility going back to 1983, interviews with key individuals including over 30 current or former ARS and UNL personnel, as well as meat industry and agricultural research statistics and norms. The IG stressed that this interim report and its observations could change, noting that it had yet to obtain comments on its preliminary observations from the reporter who wrote the New York Times story. The report contains no conclusions or recommendations.

One statement from the article said that pigs were having too many piglets “up to 14, instead of the usual eight” and that hundreds of the newborns, “too frail or crowded to move, are being crushed each year when their mothers roll over.” In its observations, the IG notes that a pork industry analysis says the average number of pigs in a litter is around 13, and that piglets being crushed by their mothers is “one of the most common causes of preweaning piglet mortality” in the pork industry. “We determined that USMARC’s live-preweaning mortality rates were in line with industry norms,” the IG said.

The Times story also referred to the deaths of 25 sheep over a May weekend and said their carcasses were “dumped into a vast excavation called the dead pit.” The IG says the way the carcasses were disposed of is a “common and legal practice in agriculture.”

At another point, the Times noted that the center had housed 580,000 animals since 1985 and “at least 6,500 animals have starved.” The IG determined that over 6,500 animals had been “coded as having died due to starvation” since 1985. But it said the “code does not indicate that animals were not provided adequate food.” Workers at the facility told the IG that this code is used when an animal is found dead “with no fat on its body” and that these deaths “generally occur early in life as a result of complications from nursing.”

One part of the Times story descried what it called a “daring twist – pasture lambing, an attempt to take domesticated sheep, which are dependent on human health, and create a breed that can survive on its own” The IG said it determined that “pasture breeding” is a common management practice in the U.S. and has been used by producers for a number of years.” The IG said it had no observation at this time on a related statement in the Times story – that the researchers withheld help for the newborns, typically leaving them in the pasture – till death, if necessary -- to test whether mothers would respond to the young ones’ growing desperation.”

“At the completion of our fieldwork, we will issue a final report dealing with the results of our review, including any finding, conclusions and recommendations,” the IG said.

In its story, the New York Times noted that the center’s director, E. John Pollak, declined to be interviewed. But the newspaper reported that USDA officials, in written responses, said the center abides by federal rules on animal welfare.

This week, Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, said USDA is “encouraged” that IG’s interim report found that “USMARC operations and outcomes are generally consistent with industry and scientific norms.” He said the department is continuing to cooperate with the IG team and looks forward to seeing its final report.

Further, he noted that the report is in line with the findings of the independent Animal Handling and Welfare Review Panel created at the direction of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack after the New York Times story was published. The recommendations of that panel have been implemented at USMARC, he said.


For more news, go to: www.Agri-Pulse.com