An audit by USDA’s Office of Inspector General found that the department’s oversight of lab animal welfare is unacceptably lax. For activists, that’s a supersize serving of fresh red meat.

One of the enduring attack points for proponents of the PETA perspective that animals deserve the same status as people is the use of rats, mice and other creatures in medical research. Never mind that the goal of virtually all such experiments with animals is to advance the understanding of disease processes and to safely test procedures, devices and pharmaceutical therapies.

According to the hardcore activists, any incident of abuse in any lab anywhere is justification for banning all animal research. Of course, most such folks believe that “computers” can replace all such research and testing, so their credibility is suspect, to say the least.

But the last thing that anyone who is part of any industry involving animals should have to confront is abusive practices or negligence that violates best practices and humane standards.

However, such transgressions seems to be occurring at least in part because the federal agency tasked with oversight of medical research facilities appears to be neglecting its responsibilities.

That’s the conclusion of a new audit by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The report by USDA’s Office of Inspector General documented that:

  • APHIS inspected facilities that haven’t housed animals for more than a decade
  • Failed to properly penalize labs for unnecessary abuse of research animals
  • Failed to conduct investigations into serious and repeated welfare violations

“[This] audit could damage APHIS’s reputation,” Taylor Bennett, senior scientific adviser for the Washington, D.C.–based National Association for Biomedical Research, told Science Insider, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Bennett, who previously was in charge of oversight for animal research at the University of Illinois-Chicago, pointed out that APHIS is constrained by regulations. For the most part, he told Science Insider, the agency is “doing the best it can” under the circumstances.

Of course, the National Association for Biomedical Research is an NGO that advocates for the use of animals in biomedical research, so Bennett’s comments must be taken in context.

Nevertheless, the results of the APHIS audit are troubling. One of the findings of a 2004 OIG audit was that the agency’s fines were so low that some violators considered them “the cost of doing business.” Similar charges were again documented in the most recent audit, namely that minimal fines and uneven enforcement had made the agency’s penalties “basically meaningless,” according to the Science Insider report.

The OIG review covered all APHIS units, including the Animal Care unit, whose inspectors are responsible for research facilities that use, sell, or transport animals under the Animal Welfare Act. According to the story, the audit included site visits to 29 of the more than 1,100 such facilities and a review of APHIS inspection data from 2009 to 2011.

One of the most egregious findings was that the agency inspected 107 research facilities that hadn’t actually housed any animals for at last two years, and some that hadn’t kept lab animals on the premises for as long as 13 years, the auditors reported. The audit estimated that APHIS probably wasted $115,000 on such inspections. That’s not the end of the world, but more importantly, the inspections of facilities having no animals on site diverted agency resources that should have been directed toward investigating repeat offenders.

Bennett noted that APHIS guidelines require the agency to inspect all facilities registered as sites with regulated animals on the premises, regardless of whether any animals are actually present. “They’re hamstrung by the law,” he said.

Fair enough. However, the real issue with the OIG audit is the findings that APHIS’s Investigative and Enforcement Services unit closed dozens of cases without even investigating them and that IES fines for violations averaged only 14 percent of the maximum levels allowed by law.

In 200, Congress authorized penalties of up to $10,000 per violation. However the audit found that IES continued to severely reduce the penalties — often “without merit” — resulting in its lowest fines in more than a decade. Even Bennett acknowledged that the evidence was “pretty damning.”

Feeding the crazies

The audit also concluded that university research facilities are protecting animals sufficiently. As Science Insider noted, from 2009 to 2011 OIG documented violations among more than 500 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees regulated by APHIS. These included not adequately exploring alternatives to painful procedures, misrepresenting the number of animals in experiments and ignoring improper veterinary care.

This is unacceptable. No one who operates or supervises an animal research facility can be excused for technical or egregious violations of animal welfare standards. That’s like hauling out an ammo case, pulling out a bunch of extended clips and helpfully offering to load the weapon for the critics and crazies who oppose any and all use of animals in biomedical research.

Predictably, the Humane Society of the United States used the audit findings to attack researchers and the institutions for which they work.

“IACUCs are not functioning properly, and they’re failing animals,” said Kathleen Conlee, HSUS vice president of animal research issues, before trotting out the standard talking point, “It’s too much like the fox guarding the henhouse.”

It’s awfully hard to refute even clichéd comments like that when the federal agency that’s supposed to make sure animal research is conducted humanely is apparently asleep at the switch.

Bennett claimed that an analysis by the National Association for Biomedical Research showed that welfare citations have been declining every year since 2009.

If true, that’s encouraging, but unfortunately it has zero impact on either activist campaigning or the resulting media coverage.

Biomedical research must continue, and experiments requiring rats, mice and other animals cannot be sidelined because a group of highly visible and vocal opponents demand that it stop.

What also cannot happen is a government agency serving up the messaging to activists in a nice, neat, comprehensive report.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.