poisonous plants

The Poisonous Plants Research Lab is being cited by USDA inspectors.

Eli Lucero/Herald Journal

A local U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility was recently cited for inadequate veterinary care and improper handling of animals resulting in the overheating death of 32 quail chicks after a wide-ranging federal effort to improve animal welfare at federally-funded research facilities.

The Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory, adjacent to the campus of Utah State University, is a part of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, or ARS. Research from the lab is generally published in toxicology journals and includes experiments in which poisonous plants are fed to animals like calves and goats to help ranchers solve problems.

Paul Johnson, USU Plants, Soils and Climate department head, said university scientists occasionally collaborate on research projects with the facility.

“It’s a very important lab in the Western U.S.,” Johnson said. “It’s research and understanding what weeds may be poisonous to our animals out on the range.”

According to a USDA official, inspections of all ARS facilities by a USDA federal regulatory body called the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, were initiated after a Jan. 19, 2015, New York Times article that brought attention to several animal welfare issues at the federally funded U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska.

In the aftermath of that story, the official said, the USDA launched a concerted effort to improve animal welfare and asked APHIS to conduct inspections of all ARS facilities. In September 2016, the USDA office of inspector general released a report on the Meat Animal Research Center.

“Since January 2015, ARS has taken major actions to strengthen the national animal handling and welfare program that oversees ARS animal research locations,” a memo included in the report stated.

Those actions included the creation of a new position called the Animal Care and Use Officer, as well as the establishment of the Animal Welfare Leadership Committee and Animal Welfare Task Force. ARS also initiated the registration of all 36 of its animal research facilities with APHIS in August 2015 and began pre-compliance reviews to help them “successfully operate under the inspection framework.”

APHIS would then begin carrying out unannounced inspections of all ARS facilities at least once a year or more frequently if necessary. The inspections, according to the memo, would verify compliance with the 1966 Animal Welfare Act, even though farm animals used in research to benefit agriculture are an exception to that law.

Of the 27 facilities inspected between April 12, 2016, and Aug. 10, 2017, most did not have any problems, according to the APHIS reports, but there were a total of 15 citations at eight of the research facilities.

A May 18 inspection of the Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory in East Lansing, Michigan, resulted in a “critical” citation when inspectors learned that 15 ducks were found dead earlier that month due to dehydration. A necropsy report shows the severity of signs “would be consistent with multiple days without access to water.”

On July 11 2017, APHIS conducted its first inspection of the Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska, the facility under scrutiny after the New York Times story. The facility received four citations for lack of adequate veterinary care, inadequate handling of animals with heat distress and lack of adequate separation among pigs, which led to “a large percentage of these animals (having) numerous scratches, scrapes and wounds on their head, neck and bodies.”

Later that month, on July 26, APHIS inspected the Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory in Logan. The facility received two citations, one for inadequate veterinary care and a “critical” citation for improper handling of animals.

The APHIS inspection report states “inspectors could not determine if daily observation and monitoring of animal health was being accomplished for all animals.” Documentation for observing and monitoring daily health and well-being of animals was not complete, records were kept in different places and there were multiple pages with no entries for animals not being studied.

The report continues to note that some records for animals being treated were not complete and in many cases the presenting signs, diagnostic tests, diagnosis, prognosis and resolution were not annotated.

Recent peer-reviewed toxicology publications from the Poisonous Plant Research Lab include experimental poisoning in calves and comparing the effects of near-lethal oral doses of selenium in lambs.

The inspection report states a more detailed system for daily observation is necessary as well as frequent communication with the attending veterinarian. It lists a to-be-corrected date of Dec. 26, 2017.

The “critical” citation for handling of animals was prompted by the death of 32 quail chicks in July. The morning entry on the room log indicated the chicks were cold and the thermostat was set at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, a “system failure” resulted in the room overheating to 130 degrees causing “hyperthermia, pain, suffering, and death,” according to the inspection report.

Most facilities, the report states, have monitoring systems to notify staff when room temperatures exceed acceptable temperatures. The report states this issue should be corrected from this day forward.

USDA ARS Spokesman Christopher Bentley wrote in a statement to The Herald Journal that ARS appreciates the inspector’s observations and recommendations.

“While ARS has accomplished much to improve the health, welfare and productivity of American livestock, we realize there is always room for improvement,” Bentley stated.

Bentley stated ARS has made “tremendous improvements” during the past two-and-a-half years, they are dedicated to building a stronger animal health culture across the agency, and they are committed to ensuring “scientific excellence.”

Two days after the APHIS inspection at the Poisonous Plant Research Lab, the facility’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC, performed a review.

A USDA official said each ARS facility has its own IACUC panel made up of ARS employees, university employees and independent members of the community to provide oversight of animal welfare at research facilities.

The IACUC review includes 11 checkboxes, including one stating that an attending veterinarian ensures that “an adequate program of veterinary care has been established.” One of the bullet points below that box states, “animals are observed daily, unless less frequent observation is specifically approved by the IACUC.”

Another box states “animals are not abused and are handled in a manner that is expeditious and careful not to cause trauma, overheating, excessive cooling, stress, physical harm or unnecessary discomfort.”

A USDA official said it is within the realm of possibility that corrective measures were completed in the two days between the APHIS and IACUC inspections, but Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the D.C.-based nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, said the two inspections are contradictory.

“That’s exactly what they were cited for two days prior,” Kleiman, said. “And it’s checked like everything is hunky dory.”

After all of the internal ARS actions to improve animal welfare at their facilities, including establishing committees and walking research facility employees through pre-compliance reviews to help them pass inspections, Kleiman said it’s unfortunate that so many ARS facilities still failed to pass their inspections.

“This, again, is after all this publicity … after the USDA walks them through how to pass an inspection,” Kleiman said. “This still happens; this is the first time that any of these facilities have ever had even a semblance of an independent oversight review.”

He said there is a larger issue at play. Less than month after the New York Times story on the Meat Animal Research Center, Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced the Animal Welfare in Agricultural Research Endeavors Act, or AWARE Act, to include farm animals in federal research labs in the Animal Welfare Act. A vote was never held.

Without the AWARE Act, Kleiman said the USDA has no authority to enforce the citations that APHIS issued in their inspection reports.

“There is no enforcement mechanism for the Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory of for any of the other 36 agricultural research service labs,” Kleiman said.

USDA Public Affairs Specialist R. Andre Bell confirmed in a statement to The Herald Journal that APHIS has no enforcement authority over ARS facilities. However, if there a “direct” noncompliance citation, one that is adversely affecting the health and well-being of an animal, ARS has agreed to stop the research activity until it is corrected.

Kleiman said the Animal Welfare Institute, at a minimum, would like to see the loophole in the Animal Welfare Act closed so federal research facilities are covered by the law.

“There is a huge enforcement hole here,” Kleiman said.

sdolan@hjnews.com Twitter: @RealSeanDolan

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