University denies welfare violation allegations

USDA levies complaint against California university; university mounts defense
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

The Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has filed a complaint against the University of California-San Francisco for violating the Animal Welfare Act between May 2001 and February 2003 by committing various infractions. In October, university officials filed a response to the allegations, denying nearly every charge.

The USDA has charged UCSF, which is the nation's fourth largest recipient of research grants from the National Institutes of Health, with 61 counts and noted that the "gravity of the respondent's violations is great."

In its response, the university states that there are inaccuracies and redundancies in the complaint, and disagrees with most of the allegations. The university contends that only one allegation resulted in an animal experiencing any potential discomfort, and contests the USDA's assertion that the gravity of the violations is great.

Policing animal welfare
The Animal Welfare Act requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public. APHIS inspectors make unannounced inspections at all licensed and registered facilities at least once annually to monitor compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, which was passed in 1966 and strengthened in subsequent years.

Sometimes USDA investigations take years. "When we investigate a facility, we don't just walk in and say, okay, that is a violation. We actually have to be able to document evidence that we use to prove that violation in court," said Jim Rogers, a spokesperson for the USDA. "When we conduct an investigation, we may find stuff from a long time ago, and if we do, we will go ahead and include it."

Rogers says the USDA has filed complaints against other universities for violating the Animal Welfare Act. In January 2002, for example, the University of Connecticut in Storrs settled a case with the USDA by admitting to violating the act and agreeing to implement a number of new policies designed to protect the safety and well-being of animals. The university agreed to pay a civil penalty of $129,000.

The USDA has also brought cases against animal dealers, exhibitors, and companies.

UCSF charges
The USDA's allegations against UCSF are varied. The university claims that many allegations are inaccurate and based on the same episode, thus giving a false impression of frequency. In addition to filing a formal response with the USDA, the university issued a public statement addressing the more serious allegations.

For example, the USDA alleges that the university performed surgery on a sheep and her fetus without using anesthesia or analgesia. The university, however, says it responded to this complaint in a letter written in 2001, saying that it had purchase records that prove that local anesthetic was used and that medical records would explicitly indicate the use of anesthetics in the future.

Another complaint alleges that one marmoset was subjected to forced breeding while its offspring were still nursing, with the implication that this practice led to the subsequent death of the animal. The university says that what the complaint describes is standard reproductive behavior by marmosets in captivity, and that a necropsy revealed that a gastrointestinal ailment common to marmosets was the likely cause of death.

In response to citations for failing to use postoperative analgesics, UCSF says that in all cases, the analgesics were either withheld for clinical reasons or were administered as indicated.

The university denies all but one of the claims that suitable postoperative observations of animals were not performed. The university writes: "In a single exception, UCSF veterinary staff determined that there had been a failure to perform postoperative observation in accordance with the approved protocol, and initiated corrective action immediately."

The university also denies multiple charges of not following protocols, failing to keep animal housing facilities clean and in good repair to protect the animals from injury, and failing to maintain a program of adequate veterinary care that included daily observation of all animals and a mechanism to convey accurate information to the attending veterinarian.

The other charge the university admitted to was improperly cleaning a rabbit enclosure. The university says that it has since installed an automated cage washer in that enclosure.

This is not the first time that the USDA has made complaints against UCSF for violating the Animal Welfare Act. In October 1999, the USDA sent UCSF a letter of warning identifying violations of the act from November 1998 through September 1999. In December 2000, the USDA and the university entered into a stipulation agreement, whereby UCSF agreed to pay a fine of $2,000.

According to Eugene Washington, MD, UCSF executive vice chancellor, "...the university's record during the last five years demonstrates a strong commitment to the humane and ethical handling of animals." The university's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee oversees all animal care and study, and the university recently received full accreditation by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. This voluntary accreditation is considered the gold standard both by advocates and critics of animal research, says Nigel Bunnett, PhD, chair of the UCSF IACUC. "What's perplexing about the (recent) complaint is that it represents old citations, all of which were addressed at the time they were issued," Dr. Washington said.

Decision pending
At press time, UCSF had filed its response with the USDA. Colleen Carroll, the trial attorney with the USDA who is prosecuting the case, says the next step is to set a date for the hearing, which will be "sometime in the near future."

The agency will then consider its next actions, which could include civil penalties. If any of the violations is proved, the university could be subject to civil penalties, up to $2,750 per violation, Carroll says. "Under the Act, a violation is determined on a per day, per animal basis," she said. "The secretary is also authorized to (issue) cease and desist orders, if there is a finding of a violation."