USDA Falls 90% Short of the Job
By: Kirsten Rosenberg
Jul. 31, 1999
The Alternatives Research & Development Foundation (ARDF) is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to protect birds, mice, and rats under the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). ARDF, an affiliate of the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS), filed the suit in March in response to the agency’s “continual denial of its statutory requirement” to cover these animals under AWA regulations.
The USDA is responsible for enforcing the AWA, which governs the care of animals in labs, zoos, circuses, and the “pet” trade. Yet for nearly 25 years, the agency has ignored mice, rats, and birds by classifying them as “non-animals” under the AWA, despite the fact that mice and rats account for 90 percent of the animals used in research. As Tina Nelson, executive director of AAVS, explained, “Never before has one regulatory change held the possibility of helping such a vast number of animals.” ARDF Director John McArdle estimates the number of mice, rats, and birds used annually in the United States for experimentation and testing to be 20 million. “Whether you accept the use of animals in science or not, everyone should agree they deserve, at the very least, guaranteed basic standards of humane care,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the USDA holds another view. It maintains that certain language in the AWA allows the Secretary of Agriculture the right to determine which animals are covered. The department also contends that most of the species excluded from the AWA are protected by other animal-care policies. But those codes are only voluntary, according to AAVS. Perhaps the biggest sticking point for the USDA is that extending coverage for rats, mice, and birds may double the number of regulated research facilities, which could result in a cutback of inspections of currently regulated institutions. But animal protectionists counter that a lack of funding is no excuse to continue ignoring millions of sentient animals who undergo often painful research, and that it’s the USDA’s duty to acquire the needed funds from Congress—as other federal agencies do—to carry out their statutory responsibilities. Or the department could consider other means of enforcement that don’t involve regular on-site visits by USDA inspectors, suggests Moshe Shalev, M.Sc., V.M.D., in Lab Animal magazine.
If the USDA amends its definition of “animal” to include birds, rats, and mice, laboratories and schools that use these animals in teaching demonstrations would be forced to follow standards of care and report the number of animals used. Researchers would also be required to look for non-animal alternatives first before conducting experiments.
The lawsuit’s aim mirrors a rulemaking petition filed in April 1998 with the USDA by ARDF along with several scientists, educators, and an alternatives testing company.