Animal research projects on hold at Nebraska center

USDA works on updating animal welfare procedures at Nebraska research facility after 60-day review.

No new research projects will begin at the Nebraska-based Meat Animal Research Center until new protocols are implemented to address concerns over the welfare of animals at the Agricultural Research Service center conducted with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

When news of animal mistreatment at the Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska was reported by the New York Times in January, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack ordered an independent review with a report on the facility’s practices to be delivered within 60 days. Vilsack said the independent review did not find mistreatment of animals presently taking place at the MARC Center, but he did direct all the recommendations of the report be implemented immediately.

The review was conducted by the ARS Animal Handling and Welfare Review Panel (ARS-AHWRP) which included four university researchers from across the country and one ex-officio member which was Dr. John Clifford who previously served as the chief veterinary officer at USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The report stated, “Without exception, the panel observed healthy and well-cared for animals. As a rule, animals were handled with care and professionalism by dedicated staff members. No instances of animal abuse, misuse, or mistreatment were observed. Areas of the animal care program where improvements can be made centered primarily on processes and documentation associated with the role of the [Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee] IACUC.”

Based upon the findings of the panel, the animal care committee “was not adequately fulfilling its responsibilities,” particularly in regards to its duty to “review and approve or disapprove protocols and other proposed activities, or proposed significant changes in activities, related to agricultural animal care and use in research and teaching.”

The panel recommended strengthening procedures and accountability for the MARC Center’s 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. The panel suggested that the attending veterinarian should not serve as the chair of the committee.

The report also suggested updating electronic record-keeping practices at all facilities to ensure all animals are being appropriately monitored and cared for. “This will assist in monitoring both individual and herd health of all animals, and provide assurance that animals are receiving the appropriate care,” the panel said.

Another recommendation USDA plans to implement includes updating training across all research facilities to ensure it is uniform, documented and meets USDA’s standards for animal welfare. As an important component of training on how to report animal welfare concerns, it is suggested that individuals should be informed of “whistleblower” policies which protect individuals who choose to report concerns.

USMARC is operated in close cooperation with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under a specific cooperative agreement. Under the specific cooperative agreement UNL employees operate and oversee the livestock production operations while USMARC employees conduct and oversee the research programs, although effective management requires close coordination and communication between UNL and USMARC staff. Veterinary care is also provided via a cooperative process.

The panel found that there appears to be excellent communication between the multiple parties involved in animal care, veterinary care and animal research. “There is, however, the potential for confusion about lines of authority and oversight responsibility,” the panel said. As such, the report recommended 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.

The USMARC is an approximately 33,000 acre research site. The site houses swine, sheep, and beef cattle. The site includes numerous pasture areas and crop fields.

Vilsack said, “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. 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.”

The report focuses on Phase 1 of the review. Phase 2 charges the panel with reviewing an additional three to five ARS locations where livestock research is conducted.

The public comment period on the draft report's findings will be open from March 9 - March 18. The public can review the report on the Federal Register or at www.ree.usda.gov under Special Report or by clicking here.

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