WASHINGTON, D.C.--Biomedical research groups have won a major victory in a long-running battle over government regulation of laboratory mice and rats. But the war isn't over.
The U.S. Senate today voted to bar the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from setting new rules on how scientists use and care for millions of research rodents. "A rodent could do a lot worse than live out its life-span in research facilities," said Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who yesterday introduced the amendment to a major farm bill. Helms said that the new language will keep biomedical research from becoming entangled by "regulatory shenanigans" promoted by the "so-called animal-rights crowd."
Animal-rights groups have vowed to strip the new rule from any final version of the bill, which still must be reconciled with a House version that lacks the language. "It's a setback, but we are not rolling over on this one," says Nancy Blaney of the Working Group to Preserve the Animal Welfare Act, a coalition of animal-rights groups.
The controversy stems from a 30-year-old USDA policy that exempts mice, rats, and birds--which account for 95% of all experimental animals--from regulation under the Animal Welfare Act. Two years ago, after several court battles, the USDA agreed to draft caging and care rules. The deal outraged biomedical groups, which argued that USDA regulation would duplicate existing government and voluntary rules and drain millions of dollars from research accounts. The groups convinced Congress to delay the rules once, but last year lawmakers told USDA to begin writing the regulations (ScienceNOW, 20 November 2001).
Animal-rights groups plan to blanket negotiators on the final bill with appeals to drop the ban. "Lawmakers will be hearing from us. ... This is making a huge change in the law without adequate debate," says Blaney. But Frankie Trull of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which lobbied for the ban, says the new law "doesn't change anything. It simply restates what has been agency policy for decades."