The lurid expose of suspected animal care problems at the prestigious U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) was a shocker to everyone who stood in awe of the accomplishments of that phenomenal research facility. Written by New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss, the headline was a killer: "U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit / Animal Welfare at Risk in Experiments for Meat Industry." Making it even more painful was a follow up Op/Ed written a week later by NYT's editorial board: "Farming Science, Without the Conscience."
MARC has always been the pinnacle of animal research, a haven for some of the most brilliant and dedicated people in the business. An assignment there for any college graduate with a degree in agriculture was akin to a Rhodes scholarship. Had the best-of-the-best in the science of modern animal agriculture really become so tone deaf in their search for a better cow/pig/sheep that they ignored their better voices and intentionally tortured animals in a vain and misguided attempt to reach their goals?
Reaction by the media was immediate and as sharp-edged as the report itself. Most predictable was Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Blogging for Washington's The Hill, he took some unearned liberties when he headlined his piece "U.S. Meat Animal Research Center: Bad for human health, too." HSUS CEO and President, Wayne Pacelle, jumped on the bandwagon with the most benign of many headlines: The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center and the Agro-Industrial Complex. But his editorial, published in the Huffington PoPost was the most superbly acidic of dozens of similar pieces.
The Huffington Post also published an editorial from Matthew Bershadker, ASPCA President and CEO, who wrote "USDA's Meat Animal Research Center: An American Horror Story." Allison Aubrey, writing for NPR's The Salt, headlined her story "Outrage Over Government's Animal Experiments Leads To USDA Review."
The story lead to a demand by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for an immediate investigation. To show how deadly serious he was, he wants a report completed and on his desk in 60 days. For most of us who follow the deep chill, slow motion molasses that is Washington politics, we know that a politician asking for anything quicker than a year-and-a-half from now means very serious, heads-will-roll business.
MARC and the USDA yanked in their press room welcome mats and slammed the doors, too, locking them tight, securing them with chains and two by fours to make sure they remained unopened for the duration. Calls to either organization were not returned. Spokespeople politely interceded with a 'no comment.' There would be absolutely no official word until the investigation was complete.
One unofficial statement did slip out from a friendly observer. "I think it was an error made by scientists who got carried away with their assignment and lost sight of their moral obligations," she said.
Still, inquiring minds wanted to know how much of the report was true? Could any of it be merely misconstrued observations by an untrained eye? Had MARC, in search of a better and more efficient animal, really crossed the line? What are the limits of animal ag research? Surely not the bizarre, almost Josef Mengelian stuff in Moss' story. Was there an unspoken assumption, at least for the cattle industry, that their future would be more poultry-like; soon-to-be vertically integrated with its financial success tied to an overwhelming premium placed on a too quick advance in productivity?
The answers might have come from a Postmodern Farmer podcast a few days ago. Hosts Diana Prichard and Kerry Nobis got Michael Moss on the phone and asked him a few interesting questions. If you want to listen to the interview, save yourself some time and scroll to the 44 minute point where the interview begins. One of the most trenchant statements he made was the scientists were trying to make animals more productive to better feed the world. "Do people really want that if it means a decrease in animal welfare?," he asked.
Moss described the animal handling problems as possibly a difference between veterinarians and pure scientists, a throwback to the days not so long ago when many people thought that animals did not feel pain as you and I might. The vets might have been horrified but the scientists, seeing the possibility of a breakthrough, were fascinated by the potential of the projects they were pursuing.
Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the administrator of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, might have agreed with Moss. She quickly established an ombudsman to act as a whistle blower if any further transgressions happened, naming Eileen Thacker, pointedly a veterinarian, to the position. I doubt a scientist was ever considered.
The MARC researchers were trying to develop a more efficient animal; a sheep that could give birth on its own without human intervention, hogs that could produce ever larger litters or withstand the effects of temperature extremes, and cows that twin regularly.
They forced the normal twinning rate of 2-3% to spike to 55%. What they found, though, was nature sets its own limits and science was not able to intervene. The scientists had surpassed a biological limit. In fact, Moss said cattlemen he talked with 'hate' twinning, making it an unneeded research project that solved no pressing problem.
Sheep giving birth without human intervention? Predators, poor mothering and bad weather will claim too many lambs. MARC determined one in three will die. Sheep folks, Moss said, set an acceptable mortality rate at less than 10%.
Hogs subjected to high temperatures died of heat stress. Pig fetuses were 'gently crushed' to see if the empty uterine spaces affected intervals between pregnancies. It did not.
Moss said he visited farms and ranches as part of his research. He was impressed by the incredible care given to animals. Even if extraordinary veterinary care is required, ranchers will do it without question, even if it means losing money. He mentioned one sheep herder he talked with who knew he had an ethical, moral and religious obligation to intercede when necessary.
My friend Dan Murphy, writing an opinion piece about MARC's questionable research for Drovers CattleNetwork, said "There is a line that must be drawn between research that produces beneficial results in terms of yield and efficiency, and projects that are conducted without the necessary regard for the health and welfare of the livestock involved."
I have often written that the animal ag industry, which almost always takes extraordinary care of its animals, must close the door on the few people 'caught on tape' allowing any kind of abuse. Temple Grandin, the most renowned expert on animal welfare in the world, has suggested that a cure might be cameras linked to the internet to keep a constant and publically accessible eye on every animal ag business. I would add to that every animal research group, too, must televise its practices. To paraphrase, "Allow nothing to happen in your feed yards or pens that you wouldn't show your wedding guests."
Bottom Line: I'm anxiously awaiting the report demanded by Secretary Vilsack. That egregious errors happened and animal research sustained a painfully blackened eye cannot be questioned. What will be done to prevent them from happening again?