In light of a New York Times article alleging animal abuse at the USDA Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska, lawmakers from Oregon and Pennsylvania were joined by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to introduce the AWARE Act, legislation they say will ensure farm animals used in agricultural research at federal research facilities be included in the definition of “animal” under the Animal Welfare Act, which includes exemptions for certain research related to farm animals.

“When USDA research facilities experiment on farm animals, they should be held to the same standard as federal research facilities conducting lifesaving disease research with the same kinds of animals,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), lead sponsor of the legislation. In the past, Blumenauer has supported efforts to curb the use of antibiotics in farm animals and opposed what he calls “massive factory meat-production techniques” that he says are cruel to animals and harmful to the environment.

The New York Times article, which sourced various former employees within the center, alleged animal welfare issues surrounding research projects related to cattle, hogs and sheep.

It drew the attention of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack who called for the Agricultural Research Service, which oversees the center in Nebraska, to deliver an update Animal Welfare Strategy plan with 60 days. According to Reuters, the new strategy “will include updated training for government employees and others who work with animals in the service's research labs.” It also calls for an independent panel to be convened “to review the group's animal handling protocols, policies and research practices.”

The center, founded 50 years ago, conducts research related to genetics, breeding and animal health, meat safety and quality research, reproduction, and nutrition and environmental management. It maintains herds of approximately 12,600 cattle, 14,000 pigs and 3,800 sheep to conduct field research, according to ARS.

It also works closely with veterinary medicine students at the University of Nebraska. According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald, the head of farm research at UNL said the university will continue its working relationship. “The allegations in that article are not consistent with our experiences of the care of animals at the center,” Archie Clutter, dean of UNL’s division of agricultural research, told the Omaha World-Herald.

Nebraska’s congressional delegation has also pledged to inquire on the issue through various oversight hearings on Capitol Hill. According to the Omaha World-Herald article, Sen. Deb Fischer said research at the center has helped advance the U.S. livestock industry and noted that success in the industry is dependent “upon the health and welfare of our animals.”

Growing up on a cow-calf operation and being involved in one today, the health and well-being of animals not a light matter. Animal abuse is intolerable. Period. And those who abuse animals should be held accountable for their actions. That does not mean the end to research or enacting the AWARE Act. Sen. Fischer is right – conducting research to advance this industry is vital to a successful future.

There are conflicting reports about the animal handling practices at the Center. So before major changes are made to the law or otherwise, let the review take place. Before considering legislation that is based on an article in a news publication that has repeatedly published biased, one-sided attacks on animal agriculture, was introduced by individuals opposed to modern livestock practices and supported by animal rights groups whose goal is to remove meat from the dinner plate, more information is needed to fully understand and be AWARE of the current guidelines, regulations, and practices at the center. Conduct oversight hearings. Get to the bottom of the “boots on the ground” practices. Only then, when we are actually AWARE of the truth, can rational, educated discussions be had and decisions made.