UCSF settles animal lab charges

Recent spate of fines for mistreating lab animals not out of the ordinary, experts say

By | October 19, 2005

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), is the latest research university to settle out of court with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over charges that it violated the Animal Welfare Act. In an agreement filed September 23, 2005, UCSF said it would pay a $92,500 fine but did not admit to mistreating research animals.

In spite of a recent spate of such settlements with USDA—John Hopkins University settled for $25,000 in February 2005 and the University of Nevada, Reno, agreed to pay $11,400 in May 2005—scientists in charge of animal welfare at other institutions say that official complaints from USDA remain rare.

"This has happened periodically at different institutions over the years," said Howard Rush, director of the unit for laboratory animal medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "I'm not aware that it's more strict than it's been before."

USDA filed a complaint against UCSF in August 2004, citing 59 violations of animal facility regulations, which ranged from improperly storing food and washing cages to failing to treat marmoset monkeys that were visibly ill and withholding painkillers for animals after surgeries.

"I don't know the case, so I can't say" specifically about UCSF, said Kathryn Nepote, director of laboratory animal care at the University of Maryland, College Park. But when USDA files a formal complaint, "usually it's multiple situations or something that they consider to be quite egregious," she added.

Most alleged violations concerned incidents that UCSF had already been cited for over the previous several years, according to Ara Tahmassian, associate vice chancellor of research at UCSF. These old citations were frequently expanded into multiple violations—if, for example, a concern affected more than one animal species—and the university had already fixed the problems, Tahmassian told The Scientist.

In October 2004, UCSF filed a formal response to the complaint, in which "we denied the majority of the charges," Tahmassian said. "The few that we didn't outright deny, we explained the reasons for." USDA later amended the complaint to include new violations they found after October 2004. UCSF was scheduled to appear before an administrative judge on October 4, 2005, Tahmassian said, until they decided to settle with USDA.

"It was in the best interest of both sides to settle the case," Tahmassian said, "which I understand is not unusual with federal agencies." Johns Hopkins and the University of Nevada also settled without admitting guilt.

USDA inspections are required for all animal-research facilities at least once a year and usually happen at UCSF twice per year, according to Tahmassian. In the past few years, inspectors have become more focused on minor or administrative violations, Tahmassian said. The majority of citations in the UCSF complaint "really didn't involve any animal welfare," he added. "They were administrative in nature: a missing record here, paperwork missing somewhere else."

"It's not uncommon for an institution to be cited by USDA for some deficiencies," said University of Maryland's Nepote. "But it's not that common for them to get to the point where they need to be fined."

USDA's rules and interpretation of them haven't changed in the recent past, said Mark Douse, director of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) and the office of animal resources at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. Cases like those at UCSF, Johns Hopkins, and Nevada don't make animal researchers uneasy at his institution, Douse said. "We just keep our own program as good as we can."

"I don't go through my day worrying that somebody's going to find something wrong," Rush told The Scientist. "That's not the way I would do business."

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