USDA head calls halt to any new experiments at Nebraska facility

The Secretary of Agriculture has halted all new experimental projects at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska until the facility beefs up its procedures and oversight protocols.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

The decision by Tom Vilsack, the agency's top official, follows an internal investigation prompted by a January article by The New York Times that was critical of treatment of farm animals at the Clay Center, NE, facility.

The USDA report said the facility "was not adequately fulfilling its intended role" of monitoring experiments to ensure any pain and suffering of animals is held to a minimum. Still, the oversight panel that visited the facility in February said it didn't see any evidence of animals being mistreated, the newspaper said.

The facility, which is a 55-square-mile complex, has worked on experiments to develop pigs that can have up to 14 piglets rather than the standard 8, cows that can produce twins and triplets, and sheep that can survive without shelter or daily supervision.

The research center was created 50 years ago, though its contributions to the meat industry have been questioned recently. Overcrowding from giant litters of piglets is believed to have contributed to the deaths of 10 million newborns per year, according to the Times.

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 records obtained by the newspaper.

The federal Animal Welfare Act doesn't apply to farm animals used in research to benefit agriculture, although the agency has said the center has abided by those rules.

- check out the NYT's article (sub. req.)