An inquiry is underway of the U.S. government's key livestock research center in Nebraska after media reports of animal welfare abuse, an auditing group that investigates U.S. Department of Agriculture programs told Reuters on Monday.

News of the inquiry came just hours after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ordered that no new research projects start at the facility until animal welfare protocols are improved through stronger oversight and better training of staff.

A New York Times report in January said staff at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center facility in Nebraska had failed to follow basic animal welfare standards during decades of research and put animals into cruel and dangerous conditions. (nyti.ms/1yDKdb4)

The Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) expects to start fieldwork this month at the research facility to investigate the allegations, an OIG spokesman said in an email.

USDA announced in January it was looking into livestock conditions at the center, which seeks ways to improve profitability of the U.S. livestock industry, such as by making pork loins less fatty.

The Office of the Inspector General told Reuters its senior officials began considering a review of the facility and its past research projects after reading the news report in January.

On Monday, Vilsack also ordered that USDA staff update electronic record-keeping practices at the facility, to ensure all animals are being appropriately monitored and cared for.

Vilsack's action came after he received a draft of the independent report he ordered earlier this year on animal treatment at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.

While no animal abuse was observed, the facility was not in compliance with USDA research policies, according to a copy of the draft report released Monday by USDA.

The independent panel that conducted the review said the center's committee that oversaw the facility provided no evidence that it met regularly to discuss issues or concerns over animal care. There was also no evidence of a formal review or approval process for research projects proposed by the oversight committee members themselves.

"There appears to be a formal and informal process for research project approvals. There needs to be one process that is followed," John Clifford, USDA chief veterinary officer with the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, wrote in an email released by USDA.