Report: Livestock research lab prioritizes profits over animal health

At a 55-square-mile complex in Nebraska, scientists are creating pigs that can have up to 14 piglets, rather than the standard 8, cows that can give birth to twins or triplets, and sheep designed to survive on their own in open fields, sans shelter or daily supervision. The purpose of this place, called the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center and managed by the Department of Agriculture, is to invent livestock that will improve the meat industry's efficiency by producing more offspring at lower costs.

But reaching that goal comes at a great cost to the animals' health, according to a heartbreaking story in The New York Times. The paper's investigation uncovered a lab of horrors, including 25 lambs who died in a single weekend--some abandoned by their mothers and then struck down by starvation or illness, and others that were attacked by coyotes. Hundreds of newborn pigs are crushed each year in overcrowded conditions, the Times reveals.

The research center was created 50 years ago, but its contributions to the meat industry have come under question. Overcrowding from giant litters of piglets is believed to have contributed to the deaths of 10 million newborns per year, according to the Times. And several ranchers quoted by the paper say they have no interest in cows that give birth to twins, largely because they're expensive to care for and there's too big a risk that the offspring won't survive.

Meanwhile, the research center is failing to provide adequate care to the animals, the Times suggests. As many as 6,500 of the 580,000 animals the center has housed since 1985 have starved, while 625 cows have died of mastitis, a treatable illness, according to internal records obtained by the paper.

"They pay tons of attention to increasing animal production, and just a pebble-sized concern to animal welfare," a former scientist at the center, James Keen, told the Times. "And it probably looks fine to them because they're not thinking about it, and they're not being held accountable. But most Americans and even livestock producers would be hard pressed to support some of the things that the center has done."

Agriculture Department officials declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement that the center "abides by federal rules on animal welfare," according to the Times. But as the Times points out, the federal Animal Welfare Act does not apply to farm animals used in research to benefit agriculture.

The Times investigation is the just the latest in a string of attacks levied against the agriculture industry. Last year, Reuters published a three-part investigative story uncovering financial ties between veterinarians and drug companies that the news organization suggested would impede a new FDA rule requiring that all antibiotics given to farm animals be prescribed by vets. The rule is meant to curb the use of antibiotics to create meatier animals.

More than 1,000 angry readers responded to the Times' story on the Meat Animal Research Center in the first 24 hours after it was posted online, many complaining that their tax dollars were being used to fund such an organization. "This place would have been shut down in the UK and most of Europe a long time ago," wrote one. "As Bob Dylan put it, 'Money doesn't talk, it swears.'"

- here's the Times story (sub. req.)