The US Department of Agriculture is only carrying out partial, rather than full, inspections of certain animal facilities as part of its animal welfare oversight, Science reports today (May 5). The change, which was made in February 2019, was not announced publicly, and has only been revealed thanks to a public records request by researchers at Harvard University’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic.
The clinic’s director, Katherine Meyer, tells Science that the use of partial inspections could violate the Animal Welfare Act, which mandates that research animals must be kept in facilities that meet certain minimum welfare standards. “How do you ensure that labs are in compliance with those standards if USDA is doing incomplete inspections?” she says.
Internal documents obtained by the Harvard group suggest that the reductions were made due to an excessive workload for USDA staff, and pertain in particular to labs already accredited by a private nonprofit organization known as the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC). Unless an AAALAC-accredited lab requests a full inspection, inspectors are to perform what the USDA terms a “focused inspection” there, which entails an inspector looking at a selection of the institution’s records, animals, or facilities. “An inspector could just look at a sampling of paperwork—and not a single animal,” Meyer tells Science.
A USDA spokesperson tells Science that it is meeting its legal requirements by inspecting all animal labs, and that it does not rely on AAALAC inspections to come to its own conclusions. Instead, “AAALAC accreditation is one factor that is considered, along with the facility’s history of noncompliances based on our previous inspections” in deciding how and when to inspect facilities. “Facilities that are AAALAC accredited generally have better compliance records, and we can expend less resources on said facilities.”
Larry Carbone, the former associate director of the animal care facility at the University of California, San Francisco, tells Science that while the USDA’s approach is legal, “the apparent sneakiness on the USDA’s part is striking.” The documents obtained by the Harvard team note that details of the change are not to be included in USDA’s official inspection guidelines. Carbone also highlights the agency’s policy to tell inspectors not to request proof of AAALAC accreditation from the facilities they’re inspecting, nor to investigate whether labs are under AAALAC probation.
AAALAC has its own critics. Meyer tells Science that, unlike the USDA, the organization warns facilities of its visits in advance, for example. However, other researchers argue that the USDA should rely more, not less, on AAALAC, as inspections carried out by the private organization can be more thorough than USDA’s are. It “would benefit all involved,” Troy Hallman of Yale University’s Office of Animal Research Support tells Science.
The USDA has previously been criticized for making animal welfare records harder to obtain. In 2017, the agency removed a number of animal welfare records on privacy grounds, although they were still obtainable via Freedom of Information Act requests. The records were reinstated on the agency’s website early last year.
Clarification (May 6): The original version of this article was accompanied by an image of rodents in a cage. While AAALAC inspections consider rodents, USDA inspections do not. The Scientist regrets any confusion.