WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2016 – A new USDA Office of Inspector General’s report about the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) in Nebraska paints a substantially different picture than a major daily newspaper described in a scathing report that alleged animal abuse and prompted calls for investigations.
“Overall, we did not note evidence indicating a systemic problem with animal welfare at USMARC,” the OIG staff noted in a report released late Friday. But USDA’s “watchdog” found that the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which oversees the facility, could improve its oversight and take steps to make its research more transparent to the public.
Almost two years ago, the New York Times published results from its investigation of the center, “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit.” The article contained a number of statements regarding animal care and mortality rates at USMARC, an indoor and outdoor research facility based on about 34,000 acres near Clay Center, Nebraska, and operated in collaboration with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and other land grant universities.For example, the reporter described several research practices and said that “these endeavors have come at a steep cost to the center’s animals, which have been subjected to illness, pain and premature death, over many years.”
The story generated strong negative public reaction and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack quickly dispatched a team of animal welfare and handling experts to Clay Center to review conditions. In the meantime, new research there was suspended.
Initially, the panel reported no evidence of animal mistreatment at USMARC. The group did identify deficiencies in employee training and in procedures for review and approval of research projects, however. Those initial findings were underscored in the final OIG report.
“USDA takes the welfare and well-being of all animals seriously. We value OIG’s thorough review of our operations and its recommendations for strengthening our animal welfare and handling programs,” said ARS Director of Communications Christopher Bentley. “The OIG findings are in line with those of the independent Animal Handling and Welfare Review Panel created at the direction of Secretary Vilsack when these concerns were first raised.”
The OIG evaluated 33 specific statements made in the Times article and determined that only seven were materially accurate, 26 were inaccurate, lacked sufficient context or were uncorroborated.
Here are three examples from OIG’s audit:
1. Statement from the article:
“At a remote research center on the Nebraska plains, scientists are using surgery and breeding techniques to re-engineer the farm animal to fit the needs of the 21st-century meat industry.”
“Out in the fields, the hailstorm sent the next day’s body count soaring to 110. Death rates in the past three years have ranged between about one-quarter and one-third of the lambs, far beyond the 10 percent that many industry experts say is considered acceptable in sheep farming.”
OIG said this statement lacked context.
Even though the OIG audit appears to clear the USMARC of many of the allegations, investigators outlined several steps that ARS needs to implement and the agency largely agreed.
The OIG said that controls for overseeing animal welfare “lacked specificity,” and the steps ARS took to perform inspections or handle complaints were not carefully documented. Also, ARS did not make it a priority to establish, maintain and monitor compliance with animal welfare- related policies.
Bentley said there is “always room for improvement and we take our responsibilities very seriously.”
Since the article was first published, ARS and USMARC have implemented a number of changes. Among other things, the ARS appointed an Animal Care and Use Officer (ACUO), whose duties include overseeing training requirements and reviewing or coordinating reviews of experimental protocols for animal research at ARS. An Animal Welfare Ombudsman was also named, who is to provide confidential assistance to individuals with animal welfare concerns at ARS research facilities.
However, the OIG suggested that the ARS increase the transparency of USMARC’s research – a concept that the agency pushed back on because of concerns about the safety of their employees (some of whom received death threats) and the need to keep some aspects of their research confidential until intellectual property can be protected.
The Humane Society of the U.S. also wants ARS to be more transparent.
“The Humane Society of the United States supports USDA Agricultural Research Service’s efforts so far to improve animal welfare standards and scientific integrity at all of its animal research facilities," Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues for HSUS, said in a statement. “We urge the agency to do more to ensure that ARS is transparent by sharing its animal research and review process publicly on its website, is accountable to the public and fulfills its stated aim of representing the gold standard in animal welfare.”
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