Michael Moss, the New York Times reporter who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on contaminated hamburger, has now shined a light on the failure of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure adequate oversight of animal research at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, “a complex of laboratories and pastures that sprawls over 55 square miles” in Clay Center, Nebraska that has housed 580,000 animals since 1985. At any one time, the center has about 30,000 animals, tended by about 44 scientists, 73 technicians and other support workers.
Journalist Moss’s investigative report, In Quest for More Meat Profits, U.S. Lab Lets Animals Suffer (1/20/15), was prompted by Dr. James Keen, a veterinarian and scientist, currently employed as a professor of epidemiology by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Great Plains Veterinary Education Center, who worked at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center for 24 years. Dr. Keen contacted The Times a year ago with his concerns about animal mistreatment at the research center. The newspaper’s investigation included interviews of two dozen current and former employees of the center and a review of “thousands of pages of internal records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.”
Reporter Moss’s report focuses on three “meat animal” research projects involving cows, pigs and lambs: (1) cows, which usually have one calf at a time, “retooled” to have twins and triplets; (2) pigs “improved” to reproduce up to 14 piglets instead of the usual eight; and (3) developing ewes capable of producing “easy care” lambs that are born “unaided” in open fields, without costly shelters or shepherds. These “endeavors” (since the 1980s), according to the report in The Times, “have come at a steep cost to the center’s animals.”
Twin cows and “easy care” lambs have been dying at high rates, and increasing the litter size of piglets is “a major contributor” to the problem of piglets crushed by their mothers. According to pig-production experts cited in Moss’s investigative report, 10 million piglets are crushed by their mothers each year, and studies have pointed to bigger litters as a major contributor.
Scientists at the center did succeed in increasing the genetic odds of cows producing twins from the normal three sets of twins in every 100 births to 55 in every 100 births, but side effects and consequences are excruciating to contemplate: “Some 95 percent of the females born with male siblings had deformed vaginas. Many of the twins died during birth as their eight legs became tangled . . . . And the breeding increasingly yielded triplets, with 12 legs to get tangled.”
The consequences from the attempt by the center’s scientists to “take domesticated sheep, which are dependent on human help, and create a breed that can survive on its own” are little better. According to one report from an individual assigned to gather dead lambs in the open pastures, “Some days 30 to 40 percent of the lambs were dead, and some of those still alive were in bad condition, separated from the moms, and they would be dead the next morning.”
This stunning investigative report has prompted much reaction from readers of The Times with, in particular, five articulate and passionate letters to the editor, including a letter from President & Chief Executive of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, who wrote: The grotesque and inhumane experiments performed on pigs, sheep and other farm animals at an obscure and secluded Agriculture Department research facility in Nebraska demonstrate the unholy collusion between government and industry in driving production on factory farms and in the process treating animals like machines and throwaway objects.
Of some small comfort, The Times in a subsequent editorial, Farming Science, Without the Conscience (1/26/15), noted that “Reuters has reported that the secretary of agriculture, in the wake of Mr. Moss’s article, has directed the agency to create a new animal welfare plan, which will involve employee training and a review of research practices.” Better yet would be a requirement that the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (as suggested in Michael Moss’s report) “do what many universities and companies do: appoint a review committee that holds regular meetings, keeps minutes and approves or rejects each experiment after carefully evaluating animal safety.” Consider adding your own voice for immediate change to end this animal cruelty by contacting the USDA, your federal Representatives and Senators as well as the White House.
(Frank W. Barrie, 2/1/15)