Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack

LINCOLN — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has halted new research at a federal livestock facility in Nebraska until improved animal welfare oversight procedures are put in place.

An animal welfare panel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it found no mistreatment of livestock during a three-day visit last month at the Meat Animal Research Center near Clay Center, according to a draft report released Monday. But panelists concluded that the center’s internal animal welfare committee “was not adequately fulfilling its responsibilities” when it comes to review and oversight of research projects.

The panel’s report came in response to a New York Times article in January that alleged systematic abuse of farm animals at the Nebraska facility. The 50-year-old center conducts scientific studies to help the livestock industry increase the quantity and quality of meat production.

The panelists found “no evidence” of animal welfare training for those who work at the center. In addition to ordering such training, Vilsack also required center officials to more clearly define their long-standing partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when it comes to animal welfare.

“It is imperative that all USDA research activities be carried out in a manner consistent with our high standards of humane and responsible treatment of animals in our care,” Vilsack said.

The Times report focused heavily on individual research projects involving cattle, swine and sheep. Of the studies detailed in the report, only one — aimed at improving the survivability of pasture-born lambs — remains active.

The animal welfare panel for the Agricultural Research Service — the same USDA division that operates the Nebraska center and others like it across the country — did not investigate the allegations of past abuse.

The Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights organization that opposes government-funded research for livestock production, said the USDA hasn’t gone far enough to address problems at the Nebraska center. Wayne Pacelle, the society’s president, said the panel’s visit should have been unannounced.

“That the center’s staff didn’t abuse animals for a three-day period, during which they knew they were under intense observation, tells us nothing about their commitment to animal welfare,” Pacelle wrote on the society’s website.

The report, however, said animals at the center were calm and without obvious signs of stress.

“We find these observations of animal behavior during handling to be significant, as we believe it is indicative of how animals are routinely handled at the facility, not just during the week of the panel’s visit,” the report stated.

It remains to be seen whether the animal abuse allegations will be investigated by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, an independent branch of the department. After members of the House subcommittee on agriculture appropriations raised concerns about the allegations, the Inspector General’s Office announced that it would launch an audit of the Nebraska center later this month.

The scope and goals of the audit are still being determined, Paul Feeney, deputy counsel for the inspector, said Monday.

The abuse allegations also prompted the introduction of legislation in Congress that would apply all requirements of the Animal Welfare Act to federal livestock research facilities. The centers currently are not held to the same standards that must be met by university and private researchers.

Archie Clutter, dean of agricultural research at UNL, said Monday that he was supportive of the USDA’s report as it relates to the university.

“We welcome their recommendations and anything we can do to clarify process and oversight in our collaborations at the center,” he said, pointing out that the university has an existing animal welfare training protocol for faculty, staff members and students who use animals in their research.

A public comment period began Monday on the findings of the report, which can be read at www.ree.usda.gov

The panel plans to issue a second report at a later date based on its review of animal welfare practices at three to five other federal research facilities.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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