USDA only partially inspects some selected lab animal facilities, internal documents reveal
David Grimm and commentaries by Robert Gorter, MD, PhD.
May 5th, 2021
A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector examines ferret cages. A new policy mandates that inspectors do lighter inspections at selected lab animal facilities only. (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE)
In February 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made a significant—and apparently secret—change to how it oversees laboratory animal welfare, Science has learned. Instead of fully inspecting all of the nearly 1100 facilities that house monkeys, rabbits, and other creatures used in biomedical research, it mandated partial “focused” inspections for labs accredited by a private organization of veterinarians and scientists called AAALAC International.
Such partial inspections violate the Animal Welfare Act, argues Katherine Meyer, director of Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic, which discovered the change after law student Brett Richey combed through more than 1000 pages of internal USDA documents. The federal law states that USDA must enforce “minimum requirements for handling, housing, [and] feeding” of research animals, as well as adequate veterinary care, Meyer notes. “How do you ensure that labs are in compliance with those standards if USDA is doing very incomplete, sloppy inspections?”
USDA counters that it still inspects all lab animal facilities, as required by law. The agency “is not using AAALAC inspections. [It] is conducting focused inspections of research facilities because facilities that are AAALAC accredited generally have better compliance records, and we can expend fewer resources on said facilities,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to Science. In deciding how and when to inspect facilities, he said, “AAALAC accreditation is one factor that is considered, along with the facility’s history of non-compliances based on our previous inspections.”
USDA’s approach is legal, says Larry Carbone, former associate director of the University of California, San Francisco’s animal care facility and an expert on animal welfare policy. There are also other safeguards for animal welfare, he notes. Still, he says, the agency’s secrecy about the policy is “troubling.”
Dr. Gorter: As patients of mine,