Lawmakers seek expansion of animal welfare regulations

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A New York Times story exposing alleged abuses at an agricultural research facility has prompted legislation to expand federal animal welfare standards to include farm animals used in scientific studies at federal facilities.

The Times’ investigation of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska suggested that, over the past three decades, thousands of animals had been mistreated at the center, part of the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service, to make livestock larger, leaner, and more productive (New York Times, Jan. 20, 2015, “Animal Welfare at Risk in Experiments for Meat Industry”).

USDA officials reportedly told the Times that the Meat Animal Research Center complies with federal rules on animal welfare.

However, farm animals used in agricultural research are exempt from the standards of humane care required under the Animal Welfare Act, the only federal law regulating the treatment of animal species used for research, exhibition, and transport and by dealers. (The law also doesn’t apply to birds, rats, and mice bred for use in research, or coldblooded animals.)

On Feb. 5, a bipartisan group of legislators in the House and Senate responded to the Times’ report with the Animal Welfare in Agricultural Research Endeavors Act (H.R. 746/S. 388). This act would amend the AWA so there would no longer be an exemption for farm animals used in agricultural research at federal facilities.

Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer introduced the House bill, saying it was time to end the “horrible misuse” of taxpayer funds. “When USDA research facilities experiment on farm animals, they should be held to the same standard as federal research facilities conducting lifesaving disease research with the same kinds of animals. This bill is common sense for taxpayers, for researchers, and for the humane treatment of animals,” the congressman said.

“As stewards of taxpayer dollars, we felt a responsibility to present the AWARE Act as a legislative fix that holds the USDA to the same humane standards that countless research facilities across the country are held to,” said Mike Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican co-sponsoring the House legislation. “If we expect staff in these facilities to recognize their professional and legal obligations to safeguard the welfare of animals, we should set the bar at an equal, or higher, level for the federal government.”

Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced the Senate version of the AWARE Act.

The AVMA’s Animal Welfare, Animal Agriculture Liaison, and Legislative Advisory committees were set to review the legislation as of press time in early March.