Research Facilities Want to Slash Federal Animal Welfare Protections

The Physicians Committee

Good Science

Research Facilities Want to Slash Federal Animal Welfare Protections

  December 5, 2017  


United States Department of Agriculture

In October, organizations that represent animal experimenters and their institutions released a troubling report. It proposes drastically cutting protections for animals in laboratories, including a significant change to the Animal Welfare Act.

The report, titled Reforming Animal Research Regulations, recommends weakening federal standards for animals in laboratories and also giving animal experimenters greater control over the creation of new rules. Essentially, it would help create an oversight system that allows laboratories to self-regulate.

A 2014 Pew Research Center survey of adults in the United States found that 50 percent of respondents "oppose" the "use of animals in scientific research” compared to 47 percent who "favor" the practice. Pair that level of concern with the federal government's poor enforcement of animal welfare in laboratories. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) own Office of Inspector General (OIG) found:

  • USDA inspectors did not always review animal use protocols and annual reports (the documents that list how many of each species were used and in what pain category), as required.
  • USDA closed investigations involving grave Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations, including animal deaths and serious repeat violations.
  • USDA failed to properly punish laboratories by reducing fines by an average of 86 percent – despite previous OIG recommendations to end this practice.
  • Some laboratories’ Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) are not adequately monitoring their facilities.
  • USDA wasted resources by conducting more than 500 inspections at more than 100 facilities that hadn’t housed AWA-covered animals for more than two years.

All of this should be cause for greater protections for animals and improved openness about what happens inside laboratories. Yet the authors of the report suggest that the government actually pare back its requirements.

Some of the report’s recommendations include:

  • Drastically reducing how often most research facilities are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This change would significantly impair the public’s ability to monitor those facilities’ compliance with the law.
  • Exempting many animal use requests (called protocols) from review by a laboratory’s full Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee when the protocols include "low-risk, noninvasive, or minimally invasive procedures." Instead, the report proposes allowing much animal use to be approved by only one or two members of the committee. But when Congress amended the Animal Welfare Act in 1985, it intended these committees to serve as groups of people, not simply individuals. In addition, even protocols that don’t involve invasive procedures are still harmful to animals, who will experience the stress of confinement, handling, and preparation for experiments. Also, there is no shortage of reported injuries and deaths to animals during routine laboratory practices, including animals who died of dehydration due to broken air conditioning or water feeders and animals who died when their cages were sent through industrial washers.
  • Giving animal experimenters greater control over the creation of regulations and stifling public input. The report’s authors suggest that "[n]ear-final documents should be reviewed by an external advisory committee of experts engaged in animal research from the regulated community before they are disseminated for public comment or final agency review." This suggests that the comments of animal experimenters and the facilities that employ them should be given more weight—or be the only comments considered—when making new rules.

At a time when there is more pressure than ever to reduce government regulation, it’s crucial that we stand up for the rules that give some modicum of protection to those who are most vulnerable. And that's what the Physicians Committee is doing. We’re working with other organizations to plan a strategic response to the recent report and the larger effort to weaken federal animal welfare regulations.