MARC guilty until proven innocent?
Apparently all it takes these days to get some in Congress energized is a story in the New York Times and the political support of the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Why else would four House members and six members of the Senate hold press conferences, shove press releases into the ether and introduce legislation over a completely unsubstantiated set of allegations against a federal research lab?
I refer to a January 19 story in the Times – not a notoriously educated, understanding or objective publication when it comes to agriculture – which carried the headline: “In Quest for More Meat Profits, U.S. Lab Lets Animals Suffer,” with the equally emotional subhead, “Controversial Research; Lambs Left to Die.” The target of the story is USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, Nebraska.
MARC was founded over 50 years ago to consolidate government research on meat animal productivity, diseases and other challenges plaguing the red meat industry. The Times story alleges pain, suffering and neglect of animals used as research subjects, but acknowledges MARC research has “fought the spread of disease, fostered food safety and helped American ranchers compete in a global marketplace.” However, much of the statistical data used as evidence of mishandling and/or cruelty and neglect is based upon Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, some going back decades, with “illustrations” of cruelty pegged to 1989 and even earlier.
The tenor of the story, to me as a former reporter/editor, is summed up in one sentence: “Certainly, the production of meat is a rough enterprise. Yet even against that reality – raising animals to be killed for profit – the center stands out.” I’d submit animals are raised and killed for food; to get people to do the work and provide that food, profit is the incentive.
Nothing in the story has been verified or proven, at least not publicly. USDA has been aware of the story for at least a year as the reporter filed the aforementioned FOIA requests and says he worked on the story for a year or more. The department said it was working on animal handling modernization before the story published, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has ordered the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to provide him an updated Animal Welfare Strategy within 60 days. The head of ARS appointed an animal welfare ombudsman, authorized new training for all who work with animals in ARS labs, and will appoint an “independent panel” to review ARS animal handling protocols, policies and research practices. That whole “independent” thing should make everyone in industry nervous.
So why the furor on Capitol Hill if it’s not known whether the story is accurate or not? Why have 11 members of Congress – including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) – decided MARC is guilty until USDA can prove it innocent? Two acronyms pop to mind – HSUS and ASPCA, and their considerable publicity machines.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D, OR) is leading the premature charge against MARC in the House. Blumenauer is no fan of what he’s called “massive factory meat production techniques,” nor the use of low-level antibiotics in animal agriculture, and wants to bring federal research facilities formally under regulation of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The AWA is a law prescribing animal handling, housing, etc., requires USDA inspections, reports and the like for animals used in biomedical research, education, teaching and entertainment. Ag research is generally exempt from the AWA, as is on-farm animal production through a statutory definition of “animal” exempting animals “used in the production of food and fiber,” and “research done to enhance the production of food and fiber.”
This AWA exemption is one of the primary protections animal agriculture has against the demands of the animal rights movement, and it’s also one of the primary targets of the animal rights movement. HSUS and others have sought to remove this exemption from the AWA since the 1985 Farm Bill. Now, HSUS and ASPCA smell blood in the water and they’re exploiting and leveraging a single newspaper article for all its worth. The dream of these groups would be to bring ag research under the AWA.
The six Senators – representing Nevada, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Hawaii – are telling Vilsack to shut down MARC research until a USDA Inspector General investigation they want is complete, one examining the “conditions and practices present at this federally-funded (sic) facility, and the USDA requires such facilities to comply with the standards of the AWA.” Now, we’re executing the prisoner before the trial is completed.
Besides being sited in Nebraska, MARC has a long-standing relationship with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) under which UNL vet students work at MARC in a close collaboration with USDA researchers. The Omaha World Herald quotes Archie Clutter, dean of the university’s division of ag research, this way: “The allegations in that article are not consistent with our experiences of the care of animals at the center.” UNL has said it will continue its relationship with MARC while USDA conducts its investigation.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R, NE), a cattlewoman still involved in the cattle business, who along with her state colleagues has pledged oversight on the issue, is keeping a cool head. She said the MARC research has been instrumental in the success of the meat industry broadly, because that success is measured by “the health and welfare of our animals.”
Let’s hope the cooler heads prevail.