U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit: Animal Welfare at Risk in Experiments for Meat Industry

Michael Moss, U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit. The New York Times, 19 January 2015. “At a remote research center on the Nebraska plains, scientists are using surgery and breeding techniques to re-engineer the farm animal to fit the needs of the 21st-century meat industry. The potential benefits are huge: animals that produce more offspring, yield more meat and cost less to raise. There are, however, some complications. Pigs are having many more piglets — up to 14, instead of the usual eight — but hundreds of those newborns, too frail or crowded to move, are being crushed each year when their mothers roll over. Cows, which normally bear one calf at a time, have been retooled to have twins and triplets, which often emerge weakened or deformed, dying in such numbers that even meat producers have been repulsed. Then there are the lambs. In an effort to develop “easy care” sheep that can survive without costly shelters or shepherds, ewes are giving birth, unaided, in open fields where newborns are killed by predators, harsh weather and starvation….”

Since Congress founded [the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center] 50 years ago to consolidate the United States Department of Agriculture’s research on farm animals, the center has worked to make lamb chops bigger, pork loins less fatty, steaks easier to chew. It has fought the spread of disease, fostered food safety and helped American ranchers compete in a global marketplace.

But an investigation by The New York Times shows that these endeavors have come at a steep cost to the center’s animals, which have been subjected to illness, pain and premature death, over many years. The research to increase pig litters began in 1986; the twin calves have been dying at high rates since 1984, and the easy care lambs for 10 years….

It is widely accepted that experimentation on animals, and its benefits for people, will entail some distress and death. The Animal Welfare Act — a watershed federal law enacted in 1966, two years after the center opened — aimed to minimize that suffering, yet left a gaping exemption: farm animals used in research to benefit agriculture….

The center’s parent agency, the Agriculture Department, strictly polices the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses and private laboratories. But it does not closely monitor the center’s use of animals, or even enforce its own rules requiring careful scrutiny of experiments.

As a result, the center — built on the site of a World War II-era ammunition depot a two-hour drive southwest of Omaha, and locked behind a security fence — has become a destination for the kind of high-risk, potentially controversial research that other institutions will not do or are no longer allowed to do….

James Keen, a scientist and veterinarian who worked at the center for 24 years…. approached The Times a year ago [early 2014] with his concerns about animal mistreatment. The newspaper interviewed two dozen current and former center employees, and reviewed thousands of pages of internal records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

That reporting shows that the center’s drive to make livestock bigger, leaner, more prolific and more profitable can be punishing, creating harmful complications that require more intensive experiments to solve. The leaner pigs that the center helped develop, for example, are so low in fat that one in five females cannot reproduce; center scientists have been operating on pigs’ ovaries and brains in an attempt to make the sows more fertile.

Even routine care has fallen short. Of the 580,000 animals the center has housed since 1985, when its most ambitious projects got underway, at least 6,500 have starved. A single, treatable malady — mastitis, a painful infection of the udder — has killed more than 625.

The experiments have not always helped the meat business. Industrywide, about 10 million piglets are crushed by their mothers each year, according to pig-production experts, and studies have pointed to bigger litters as a major contributor. Not only do they generate more and weaker piglets, but the mothers have grown larger because they are kept alive longer to reproduce.

Certainly, the production of meat is a rough enterprise. Yet even against that reality — raising animals to be killed, for profit — the center stands out. Some of its trials have continued long after meat producers balked at the harm they caused animals….

The newborn lamb lay alone in the grass, bleating feebly, abandoned by a mother far out of earshot. As dusk neared and cold gusts heralded a hailstorm, it seemed unlikely that the animal would survive the night. It was certain that no one would come to its rescue….

In 2004, the center began work on a major effort to save ranchers money by creating a low-maintenance sheep called easy care. Similar breeding had gone on elsewhere since the 1960s, producing sheep that do not need shearing; instead of wool, the animals grow fine hair that regularly falls out.

The center added a daring twist: pasture lambing, an attempt to take domesticated sheep, which are dependent on human help, and create a breed that can survive on its own. Ranchers commonly shelter ewes giving birth in special barns, which cost money to build, maintain and staff. So the center began sending pregnant sheep out to open pastures in hopes of identifying those that would nurture their babies despite severe weather and predators.

Even under the best conditions, ewes are notorious for abandoning newborns; sheep growers typically enclose mother and baby in tight stalls, called jugs, for a day or two, so the mother cannot flee before they bond.

Predictably, many ewes in the experiment ignored their lambs. And the scientists did the same: They withheld help for the newborns, typically leaving them in the pastures — till death, if necessary — to test whether mothers would respond to the young ones’ growing desperation….

Months into his new job at the center in 1989, Dr. Keen said, he got a call from a fellow worker asking him to help with a “downed cow.”

“There was a young cow, a teenager, with as many as six bulls,” he recalled. “The bulls were being studied for their sexual libido, and normally you would do that by putting a single bull in with a cow for 15 minutes. But these bulls had been in there for hours mounting her.”

The cow’s head was locked in a cagelike device to keep her immobile, he said. “Her back legs were broken. Her body was just torn up.”

Dr. Keen wanted to euthanize the animal, but the scientist in charge could not be tracked down for permission. A few hours later, the cow died.

The episode was unusual in its violence, and current center officials said they were not aware of it. Yet Dr. Keen and co-workers recounted other instances they said attested to the same problem: a recurring failure to fully consider the pain that animals suffer during experiments, or in everyday life at the center. Some employees blamed inadequate training or budgets; others pointed to friction between scientists bent on their research and veterinarians, who take an oath to protect animals….

The center was just starting to hit its stride [late 1970s] when it encountered a threat to its autonomy: Activists were pressing to extend the Animal Welfare Act’s protections to farm animals…. The push for protections petered out. In the years since, the center has not only eluded oversight, but also fallen short on its promise to watch itself.