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Monday, December 29, 2014

Audit Shows Lax Lab Enforcement

The HSUS and HSLF are at the forefront of legislative reforms concerning animal welfare, but it’s not enough to just pass laws—we must work diligently to ensure they are enforced and that there are consequences for those who don’t follow the rules. For animals in research, enforcement is unfortunately lacking and some laboratories are getting a free pass from even meeting the most basic standards of care.

The audit says animals in research labs are not always receiving basic humane care and treatment. Photo: The HSUS

An audit released this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General concluded that the agency’s enforcement actions under the Animal Welfare Act are weak and do not serve as a deterrent to future violations. The report also pointed to failures on the part of research facilities, concluding that “animals are not always receiving basic humane care and treatment” and that pain and distress are not always minimized when animals are used in experiments.

Weak enforcement of the AWA has been a significant and ongoing problem and, according to the audit, the situation has worsened in recent years. The HSUS and HSLF successfully worked with Congress in 2008, as part of the Farm Bill, to upgrade penalties for violations of the AWA—quadrupling the potential fine from $2,500 to $10,000 per violation (the relevant penalties hadn’t changed in more than 20 years). But we’ve been disappointed in the USDA’s failure to actually utilize these new maximum penalties.

The OIG uncovered that the USDA reduced penalties by 86 percent from the authorized maximum, even in cases that involved animal deaths and other egregious violations. This is in line with what The HSUS has been finding in its own investigations. Not long ago, for example, The HSUS submitted evidence to the OIG of a case in which the USDA assessed a penalty of only $10,000 when 30 monkeys died after being trapped in a hot room where temperature regulation failed and employees ignored alarms signaling the failure. This insignificant fine was not a deterrent for violations as the same company, less than a year later, sent a monkey through a cage washing machine and the animal was scalded to death. The fine for this repeat negligence was only $4,500. 

The USDA can revoke the licenses of puppy mills and roadside zoos, but with research facilities, fines are the only tool available to ensure compliance. If a fine is too low, the violation is seen simply as a business expense or minor nuisance. That’s why it’s so critical that the USDA impose meaningful fines against research facilities for serious animal welfare violations.

Violations related to Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs), which are responsible for review of animal research activities and protocols, were found to be the most common. These include inadequate searches for alternatives to painful procedures, no descriptions of procedures to ensure pain is avoided to the extent possible, and failure to follow approved protocols.

At one Maryland facility, the OIG observed that “researchers dropped chili pepper flakes into the eyes of an animal to induce tearing; the protocol called for carefully placing a few flakes on the cheek below the animal’s eyes.” If animals are going to be used in these experiments, then the IACUCs should at the very least ensure that researchers’ use of animals is in accordance with an approved protocol.

According to the OIG, nearly 45 percent of the research facilities visited also misreported the numbers of animals used, reported animals in the wrong pain category, or could not provide documentation to reconcile their annual report of statistics. The amount of pain and distress reported by research institutions is woefully inadequate, and the USDA should crack down on research facilities for misreporting.  Without accurate reporting, there is no transparency and no accountability.

We are all diligently working to move away from harmful animal use and toward the use of more effective non-animal alternatives to solve human health problems. Until that day comes, however, the public expects that while animals are used for research and testing, our nation’s basic animal care standards should be followed. These OIG findings should be a wake-up call for policymakers, and they should demand that there be consequences for facilities that fail to follow the law. 


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