A scathing media investigation uncovers a lengthy list of outrageous incidents of animal abuse — and not at some rogue packing plant, but at USDA’s premier animal research facility.

USDA officials are calling for an independent review of the department’s operations at the Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., the federal complex where livestock have reportedly been subjected to “cruel and experimental breeding techniques,” according to a New York Times investigative report published last week.

In response, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack directed agency staff to create an updated animal welfare plan within 60 days, according to an internal email reviewed by Reuters. The memo was sent to all Animal Research Service employees.

“Please remember we all own the responsibility for animal welfare; if you see something that disturbs you, please report it, first to your supervisor or their supervisor,” wrote Chavonda Jacobs-Young, ARS administrator.

The response outlined by Vilsack and Jacobs-Young included convening an independent panel to review the group’s animal handling protocols, policies and research practices, according to Reuters. It will also include updated training for government employees, though further details were not disclosed in the memo.

That’s the official spin: We are aware of some “incidents,” and we will take stern steps to ensure that they’re not repeated.

But here’s how the Times described the situation:

“Pigs are having many more piglets — up to 14, instead of the usual eight — but hundreds of those newborns, too frail or crowded to move, are being crushed each year when their mothers roll over. Cows, which normally bear one calf at a time, have been retooled to have twins and triplets, which often emerge weakened or deformed, dying in such numbers that even meat producers have been repulsed.”

And here is how a news release from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals phrased it:

  • “Piglets accidentally crushed to death by their mothers, who have been scientifically bred to give birth to unnaturally large litters
  • “Weakened and deformed calves born to cows ‘retooled’ to have twins and triplets, when they usually bear only one calf at a time
  • “Lambs born in open fields [and] left to die excruciating deaths during an experiment to see if their mothers, normally dependent on human help, would nurture their babies despite severe weather and predators”

“This barbaric animal ‘experimentation’ is not only cruel but wildly out of step with modern sensibilities and ethical standards,” ASPCA stated. “It’s even more appalling that such activities — conducted with the goal of helping a private-sector industry turn a higher profit — are supported by taxpayers.”

Mission relinquished

The situation at the Meat Research Center is absolutely intolerable. Although the researchers there are working to find ways of improving productivity within the livestock industry, which is an important initiative, the extent to which that mission has impacted the well-being of the animals themselves is outrageous.

For example, as the Times story detailed, “In an effort to develop ‘easy care’ sheep that can survive without costly shelters or shepherds, ewes are giving birth, unaided, in open fields where newborns are killed by predators, harsh weather and starvation. Last Mother’s Day, at the height of the birthing season, two veterinarians struggled to sort through the weekend’s toll: 25 rag-doll bodies. Five, abandoned by overtaxed mothers, had empty stomachs. Six had signs of pneumonia. Five had been savaged by coyotes.

“It’s horrible,” one veterinarian said, tossing the remains into a barrel to be dumped in a vast excavation called the dead pit.

Yes, it is horrible, evidence that these research projects have truly crossed the line. Ideally, the well-being of all animals should be the most important priority with any animal research. At the very least, there absolutely must be a balance between forcing the limits of productivity and ensuring that livestock remain healthy and well-cared for, no matter what kind of experiments are conducted.

What has happened at Clay Center is outrageous, and we have no reason to doubt it, since the Times article quoted a veterinarian who worked at the center for 24 years.

“They pay tons of attention to increasing animal production, and just a pebble-sized concern to animal welfare,” James Keen, a scientist and veterinarian, told the newspaper. “And it probably looks fine to them because they’re not thinking about it, and they’re not being held accountable. But most Americans and even livestock producers would be hard-pressed to support some of the things that the center has done.”

In her email, Jacobs-Young named Eileen Thacker, a USDA program leader in food safety and animal health, as the Meat Animal Research Center’s animal-welfare ombudsman, according to Reuters. Employees were advised to contact Thacker if their complaints aren’t being properly addressed.

No, there is a more appropriate way to properly address these complaints. Instead of being satisfied with an updated animal welfare plan, some employee training and possibly an independent review of the center’s activities, heads need to roll.

USDA needs to condemn the activities that have occurred, clean house at the center and explicitly prohibit any future research that involves developing “easy-care” varieties of any species when the project involves willfully letting animals suffer and die.

Anything less amounts to slapping some fresh paint on the outside of a rotting building.

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