Harvard law student discovers animal lab inspections have been cut short since 2019
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts––The silence from a cage of dead monkeys could scarcely be more deafening.
Three business days plus a weekend of apparent near-complete non-response from the animal advocacy community have elapsed since the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic on May 5, 2021 revealed that the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service in 2019 secretly quit doing complete annual inspections of animal research facilities.
The annual inspections are required by the U.S. federal Animal Welfare Act, the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic explained in a media release, “to ensure compliance with Animal Welfare Act standards, including standards intended to promote the psychological well-being of primates used in research.”
Combed documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act
Continued the media release, “The discovery of the [suspension of complete annual inspections] “was made by Harvard Law School student Brett Richey as she combed through over a thousand pages of documents the clinic received after filing a Freedom of Information Act case on behalf of Rise for Animals (formerly the New England Anti-Vivisection Society) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.”
These organizations have sued the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture commonly abbreviated as USDA-APHIS, “for failing to improve the standards for the psychological well-being of primates used in medical research—a requirement that Congress added to the Animal Welfare Act in 1985,” the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic said.
The requirement was added specifically, the media release noted, because of the failure noted by Congress of the U.S. biomedical research sector “to ensure that primates are treated humanely, and also required to achieve reliable and valid research results.”
Cheating on golden anniversary
While the requirement for ensuring the psychological well-being of non-human primates used in laboratories dates only to 1985, the requirement for complete annual inspections of laboratory animal facilities has been in place since amendments to the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966 created the Animal Welfare Act as it exists today in 1971.
In short, if the USDA-APHIS annual inspection requirement and the U.S. biomedical research establishment had been joined in matrimony, that relationship would now be celebrating a golden anniversary.
During this time, while annual inspection reports have occasionally embarrassed animal research facilities that fail to meet the federal animal care standards, the mostly passing grades issued by USDA-APHIS laboratory inspectors have often been the first line of defense for laboratories confronted by animal advocacy protest.
Who didn’t notice
One U.S. animal advocacy organization, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, has made a specialty of poring over USDA-APHIS laboratory inspection reports, seeking documentation of especially egregious Animal Welfare Act violations, publicizing them, and petitioning USDA-APHIS to impose the maximum penalties for those violations that the Animal Welfare Act allows.
Many others have made extensive use of USDA-APHIS laboratory inspection reports in campaign literature, appeals to donors, lobbying Congress, and lawsuits filed on behalf of animals.
A short roster would include the American Anti-Vivisection Society, the American SPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Humane Society of the U.S., In Defense of Animals, the National Anti-Vivisection Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA], the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and the White Coat Waste Project.
If any of them posted a word either to social media or to a web site in response to the failure of USDA-APHIS to fully perform the first and most fundamental job it was mandated by Congress to do on behalf of animals, that word eluded ANIMALS 24-7 in extensive online searching.
Limp for animals
Indeed, among the three organizations involved in extracting the documentation of damnable malfeasance from USDA-APHIS, only the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic said anything substantive about it.
Rise for Animals, the former New England Anti-Vivisection Society, posted a 23-sentence statement alleging that, “USDA’s track record protecting animals is abysmal. Whether it’s denying a rule to promote primates’ mental wellbeing or creating a rule that makes it harder for labs to be inspected, USDA will do whatever it takes to keep the public uninformed about the living conditions for animals in laboratories.”
The last 14 lines of the Rise for Animals statement offered a string of anti-vivisection platitudes and a fundraising appeal.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, as ANIMALS 24-7 posted this coverage, was among the many that said nothing.
Inspectors told not to inspect
“Under the secret policy,” detailed the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic, if an animal research facility “is accredited by the industry-dominated Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care [AAALAC International], the USDA instructs its inspectors not to do a full inspection, but only to review one aspect of the facility—either the animals, the facility itself, or the paperwork that must be kept” as stipulated by the Animal Welfare Act.
The paperwork requirements were introduced by the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966, meaning that a USDA-APHIS inspector born in that year would now be eligible for retirement.
Continued the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic media release, “This means, for example, that for AAALAC International-accredited research labs,” which are “a majority of labs doing research on animals in this country,” USDA-APHIS inspectors “can simply check whether records are on file, and never look at a single animal to ensure that the animals are being treated humanely.”
Garage could not get away with this
Imagine taking a car under warranty for a nine-point roadworthiness inspection.
Instead of actually checking the tire treads and air pressure, the oil, radiator, and windshield washing fluid levels, the brakes, the turn signals, and the headlights, the garage just looked at the registration sticker and certified the vehicle “roadworthy,” based on the certification form having been filled out and the sticker fee paid.
This would be equivalent to what USDA-APHIS has been getting away with for nearly two and a half years, beginning just past the mid-point of the Donald Trump administration, and the four-year tenure of Trump appointee Sonny Perdue as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
The animal advocacy community had some warning that the Animal Welfare Act inspection requirements might be reduced, despite the language of the Animal Welfare Act itself.
Recalled the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic, “In 2018 the USDA solicited public comment on whether it should stop conducting full inspections of labs accredited by AAALAC International. The animal welfare community, including both Rise for Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, strenuously opposed this approach, pointing out that AAALAC International has close ties to the medical research industry and does not even apply AWA standards when deciding accreditation.
“After receiving over 35,000 comments—most opposed to the policy—the USDA announced to the public that it would not adopt it—a statement we now know is not true,” the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic media release emphasized.
AAALAC-accredited facilities have more Animal Welfare Act violations
The media release then mentioned that “A 2015 study of USDA inspection reports found that AAALAC International accredited facilities on average have ‘significantly more’ Animal Welfare Act noncompliance items than unaccredited facilities, including ‘improper veterinary care.’”
The study, “Does accreditation by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC) ensure greater compliance with animal welfare laws?,” was actually published on August 30, 2014 by the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.
The lead researcher, Justin Goodman, was then a PETA investigator, and is now vice president of advocacy and public policy for the White Coat Waste Project. Assisting Goodman were longtime PETA scientific advisor Alka Chandna and Casey Borch, a sociology professor at the University of Alabama campus in Birmingham.
Their bottom-line finding: “Controlling for the number of animals at each facility, AAALAC-accredited sites had significantly more Animal Welfare Act non-compliance items on average compared with non-accredited sites. AAALAC-accredited sites also had more non-compliance items related to improper veterinary care, personnel qualifications, and animal husbandry.”
Added the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic media release, “The records released” by USDA-APHIS through a Freedom of Information Act request “also reveal that when inspectors inquired if they could conduct a full inspection of AAALAC International-accredited facilities, they were told no because this would not be ‘fair’ to the labs.
Summarized Harvard Law School student and Animal Law & Policy Clinic volunteer Brett Richey, who found the documentation supporting her allegations, “This means that for several years now the USDA has been lying to the public about its inspection policy for research labs––it surreptitiously put into place a policy that was overwhelmingly opposed by the public.”
Richey noted “appalling indifference to tens of thousands of animals subjected to debilitating diseases who deserve our care, deferring to an industry-dominated group.”
David Grimm of Science reinforced the findings
The Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic, lest its own announcement of the discovery of unprecedented USDA-APHIS malfeasance be overlooked by people and organizations who should give a damn be overlooked, handed the findings to Science magazine online news editor David Grimm as an exclusive.
Grimm did not disappoint. As well as outlining the “significant—and apparently secret—change to how [USDA-APHIS] oversees laboratory animal welfare,” Grimm extracted an emailed response from a USDA-APHIS spokesperson he did not name.
USDA-APHIS “is not using AAALAC inspections,” the spokesperson told Grimm, but instead “is conducting focused inspections of research facilities because facilities that are AAALAC accredited generally have better compliance records, and we can expend less resources on said facilities, AAALAC accreditation is one factor that is considered, along with the facility’s history of non-compliances based on our previous inspections.”
Tires, headlights, turn signals, & brakes
Even if the statement that AAALAC-accredited laboratories “generally have better compliance records” happened to be true, and Goodman, Chandna, and Borch established that it is not, the USDA-APHIS claim would be similar to a garage claiming that properly registered vehicles generally have tires, headlights, turn signals, and brakes.
Continued Grimm, “In one document” obtained by the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic, “USDA, citing concerns about workload, says it has ‘made it mandatory … for inspectors to perform focused inspection at AAALAC-accredited research facilities unless the research facility requested a full inspection.’
“And, in a redacted line that Science has since uncovered, [USDA-APHIS] adds, ‘This focused inspection counts as the facility’s annual inspection.’
“Other USDA documents suggest what a ‘focused inspection’ entails,” Grimm explained. “Instead of taking a full look at an institution’s records, animals, and the facility itself (such as air conditioning units and surgery rooms) every year, an inspector only needs to look at one of those aspects or a sampling of them, according to a USDA PowerPoint.”
Or, if a turn signal works, never mind the headlights, tires, and brakes.
“For official use, internal only”
“Internal USDA documents imply the new policy is confidential,” Grimm wrote. “The guidelines are ‘for official use, internal only,’ reads one FAQ. ‘There will be no stakeholder announcement,’ and the details will not be included in USDA’s official inspection guidelines, it continues. The agency also made no mention of the changes at a conference last month for heads of animal care facilities and others responsible for lab animal welfare.”
Noted Grimm, “The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and other organizations that promote animal research have argued that USDA should consider AAALAC accreditation when assessing whether a facility is at risk for animal welfare violations.”
But Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology director of public affairs Jennifer Zeitzer told Grimm than the organization has not recommended “that USDA should allow limited inspections just because a facility is AAALAC-accredited.”
Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic director Katherine Meyer pointed out to Grimm that AAALAC laboratory inspections are done only every third year, and are done by appointment, whereas USDA-APHIS inspections are supposed to be unannounced.
Rats, mice, & birds
But Yale University’s Office of Animal Research Support director Troy Hallman countered that in his experience, “four AAALAC inspectors come for three days, versus one USDA inspector for two days, Grimm summarized.
“AAALAC also looks at mice, rats, and other creatures not covered by USDA,” Grimm finished.
Though rats and mice are by far and away the species most often used in laboratories, they are explicitly exempted from protection by the Animal Welfare Act.
This came about when the USDA-APHIS wrote rats, mice, and birds out of the legal definition of “animal” in the 1971 Animal Welfare Act enforcement regulations, circumventing the intent of Congress that all animal species should be covered.
Nearly 30 years of litigation followed before the American Anti-Vivisection Society in September 2000 won an out-of-court settlement in which USDA-APHIS agreed that rats, mice, and birds would at last receive Animal Welfare Act protection.
But USDA-APHIS then delayed implementing the settlement, until in May 2002 former
U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) attached a rider to a USDA budget bill that made the exclusion of rats, mice, and birds from the enforcement regulations an actual part of the Animal Welfare Act as it has stood ever since.
60% fewer violations cited before inspections were relaxed
The USDA-APHIS discontinued full inspection of AAALAC-accredited laboratories soon after Washington Post reporter Karin Brulliard on February 26, 2019 disclosed that “USDA inspectors documented 60% fewer violations at animal facilities in 2018 from the previous year.
“About 8,000 facilities licensed by the USDA to keep animals are subject to surprise inspections,” Brulliard explained.
“In 2017, inspectors recorded more than 4,000 citations, including 331 marked as critical or direct, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, an advocacy group that tallied the figures using inspection reports published on a USDA website. In 2018, the number of citations fell below 1,800, of which 128 were critical or direct,” Brulliard wrote.
How many inspections were “virtual”?
USDA-APHIS in fiscal year 2020 reported inspecting 5,620 animal care facilities.
Testifying to Congress on April 14, 2021, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture under both President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden, was unable to tell Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) how many of those inspections were “virtual,” rather than done in person.
USDA-APHIS is still in the process of restoring an online data base of animal facility inspection reports, accessible to the public, that was deleted during the first days of the Trump administration.
The restoration has been mandated both by Congress and by direct order of the Biden administration, to be completed by the June 30, 2021 end of the current fiscal year.
It is possible that the thus-far silent majority of organizations engaged in advocacy for laboratory animals will by then recognize the significance of USDA-APHIS having all but discontinued doing complete inspections for longer than a rat’s normal lifespan, even if not used in research.