USDA laboratory employees suspended in drug probe

Department says facility activities not compromised
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In early February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it had placed 19 employees at its federal laboratory campus in Ames, Iowa, on administrative leave as part of an investigation into whether veterinary credentials were used to buy discount human medications for personal use.

The drugs the employees are said to have ordered were medications that could be used by humans, such as antibiotics, antihypertensives, pain relievers, and vitamins.

Prescription pills

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the allegations "a very serious situation" requiring immediate and decisive action. There is no evidence that the alleged activities interfered with any test results or other official laboratory activities, Vilsack said.

Three USDA laboratories are located on the Ames federal campus. The National Veterinary Services Laboratories and Center for Veterinary Biologics are part of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; the National Animal Disease Center is part of the Agricultural Research Service.

Of the 19 employees, 17 worked with APHIS and two with the ARS. Additional staff may be implicated in the ongoing investigation, according to the USDA.

Although the drugs were being filled offsite, the USDA wouldn't comment on where that was occurring or whether multiple pharmacies were involved.

In a letter to Vilsack, AVMA President James O. Cook wrote that the AVMA condemned the alleged actions "of a few individuals who appear to have acted outside the ethical standards of the veterinary medical profession."

"In doing so, these individuals have damaged the image of our profession and the reputation of a truly world class laboratory," Dr. Cook wrote.

The Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics of the AVMA state that it is unethical and a federal offense for a veterinarian to prescribe drugs without a veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

Citing privacy concerns, few details about the employees have been made public. Cindy Smith, USDA's acting deputy undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs, said a mix of veterinarians and nonveterinarians working in supervisory and nonsupervisory positions have been implicated.

Those individuals placed on administrative leave were involved in obtaining the medications or receiving the drugs, or they were aware of what the others were doing, Smith explained.

(T)hese individuals have damaged the image of our profession and the reputation of a truly world class laboratory.


"What we understand was happening was some people had put a mechanism in place to purchase these medications and distribute them to colleagues at work or family members. It was for personal use, it wasn't to resell them," Smith said.

The practice appears to have been going on for more than 20 years, she added.

The alleged misconduct came to light back in January 2008 when an APHIS supervisor was evaluating the conduct of an employee. In that process, a forensic check of the employee's computer indicated that veterinary credentials had been used to purchase the medications.

APHIS turned the information over to the USDA Office of Inspector General and requested that an investigation be started, Smith said. She wouldn't comment on whether a criminal investigation was also under way.

The USDA commissioned third-party reviews of the laboratory processes at the Ames facility and of the management processes. The laboratory review is complete and "affirmed for us that the laboratory is generally functioning very well and successfully fulfilling its responsibilities," Smith said.

The management review had not been completed as of press time in February. To the extent permitted by concerns of privacy and security, both reviews will be eventually made available to the public.