Audit of USDA Research Center Underwhelms

Near the end of 2016, the USDA Office of Inspector General released an audit intended “to evaluate the research practices and operations of MARC” (the USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska). It was conducted in response to myriad allegations published in a New York Times exposé of appalling animal welfare conditions at the facility. (See AWI Quarterly, spring 2015.)  

The audit was a disappointingly shallow exercise. The OIG claimed it “did not find evidence indicating a systemic problem with animal treatment and care.” An oft-repeated justification for the poor treatment of animals and/or their deaths was that the practices represented “industry norms.”

Despite its serious shortcomings, however, the audit is not an exoneration. It found that the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) provided insufficient oversight of animal welfare at MARC. Animal care documentation was lacking. There wasn’t a means to receive and address complaints by employees. The chair of MARC’s institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) reviewed and approved research protocols independently rather than submitting them to the committee for review first.

The lack of transparency is frustrating. A 19-page audit exhibit intended to assess the veracity of statements from the Times article contains approximately eight pages of redactions; if aspects of the exposé are disputed, why aren’t those challenges made public? The auditors did feel that relevant materials, including MARC’s research protocols and IACUC meeting minutes, should be made public. But the ARS balked at this, citing fears of domestic terrorism and a need to protect intellectual property. And while the agency stated that inspection reports of its facilities, including MARC, will be posted online, inspection reports are among the very documents recently scrubbed from the USDA website. (See page 2.)