A new report questions government oversight of animal research.

A new report questions government oversight of animal research.

USDA/Wikimedia Commons

Audit questions U.S. oversight of lab animal welfare

In 2009, a lab technician at a research facility in Missouri left a chinchilla in a cage that was run through an industrial washer. The animal died after being repeatedly blasted with jets of scalding water. Though the facility had multiple other violations, the agency responsible for overseeing lab animal welfare in the United States gave it a “good faith reduction,” slashing the size of its fine by 25%.

That’s just one of many failures of oversight documented in an audit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The report, released last month by the USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG), also finds that APHIS wasted resources by inspecting facilities that haven’t housed animals in more than a decade, failed to properly punish labs for causing unnecessary pain to research animals, and did not conduct investigations into “grave or repeat” animal welfare violations. APHIS, the report concludes, is not making the best use of its limited resources and is not placing sufficient emphasis on animal health and safety.

“The audit could damage APHIS’s reputation,” says Taylor Bennett, the senior scientific adviser for the National Association for Biomedical Research, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that advocates for the use of animals in biomedical research. But Bennett, who oversaw animal research at the University of Illinois, Chicago, for decades, says that APHIS is constrained by government regulations and that, for the most part, the agency is doing the best it can under the circumstances.

The APHIS audit is the fourth since 1995. The first of these found that the agency’s fines were so low that violators simply considered them “a cost of doing business.” Ten years later, OIG levied similar charges, stating that lax APHIS enforcement and insufficient fines had made its penalties “basically meaningless.”

The 2014 audit comes to similar conclusions. OIG conducted a nationwide review of APHIS’s units, including its Animal Care unit, which inspects facilities that use, sell, or transport animals covered by the Animal Welfare Act (i.e., most warm-blooded creatures except for birds, mice, and rats). The audit included site visits to 29 of the more than 1100 facilities APHIS inspects, as well as a review of APHIS records from 2009 to 2011.

APHIS conducted at least 500 inspections of 107 research facilities that hadn’t housed regulated animals for at least 2 years—and some that hadn’t housed such animals for up to 13 years, auditors found. They calculate that APHIS, a billion-dollar agency, wasted more than $115,000 on these efforts—not including employee benefits and travel expenses—and that the inspections diverted APHIS from investigating more problematic facilities.

Bennett takes issue with this part of the report, noting that APHIS’s guidelines require it to inspect facilities that are registered as housing regulated animals, regardless of whether they actually have animals. “They’re hamstrung by the law,” he says.

Far more concerning to him is a section of the audit that deals with APHIS’s Investigative and Enforcement Services (IES). The unit is tasked with probing serious violations of the Animal Welfare Act, yet the audit states that IES has closed dozens of cases without investigating them. One of these involved a research facility in Oregon that was supposed to euthanize a rabbit with a broken leg—but killed a healthy animal instead. The audit also found that IES’s fines for animal welfare violations were, on average, just 14% of the maximum the government allows. In response to prior complaints about APHIS’s low fines not deterring violators, Congress authorized penalties of up to $10,000 per violation in 2008. However the audit found that IES continued to slash its fines—often “without merit”—resulting in its lowest penalties in more than a decade.

“It’s pretty damning,” Bennett says. “This is the third audit in a row that IES has been questioned about how it handles its investigations and fines. It looks like OIG has found that IES doesn’t do what it says it’s going to do.”

The audit also found that universities themselves are not doing enough to protect animals. From 2009 to 2011, it noted violations by more than 500 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs), which are overseen by APHIS. These include IACUCs not adequately exploring alternatives to painful procedures, misrepresenting the number of animals used in experiments, and turning a blind eye to improper veterinary care. An IACUC at a Maryland facility, for example, failed to ensure that researchers complied with a protocol for inducing tearing in guinea pigs; instead of placing chili pepper flakes on the animals’ cheeks, the scientists were dropping them into their eyes.

Animal welfare and animal rights groups have long expressed concerns that IACUCs, which are supposed to be objective, are dominated by animal researchers who don’t make welfare a priority. The audit confirms these fears, says Kathleen Conlee, the vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. “IACUCs are not functioning properly, and they’re failing animals,” she says. “It’s too much like the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Conlee gives credit to APHIS for being more transparent with its inspections than it has in the past, but she says that the agency’s lax enforcement will hurt animals—not just now, but far into the future. “They’re falling down on the job,” she says. “If they aren’t taken seriously, what’s the incentive for facilities to improve their animal welfare?”

For its part, APHIS says agrees with the various recommendations in the audit, including improving its inspections and levying harsher fines. “APHIS welcomes OIG’s findings and is committed to continued improvement of our enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and inspections of research facilities,” it wrote in a letter to ScienceInsider. “APHIS has already begun addressing these recommendations and anticipates completion by the end of September 2015.”

Bennett says he doesn’t expect the audit to have much impact on animal research labs. His own analysis of USDA data shows that welfare citations have been dropping each year for the past 5 years. “The veterinarians at these facilities don’t look at animal welfare in terms of whether they’re going to get dinged or fined,” he says. “They want to do a good job, regardless of an audit.”