January 21, 2015

21/01/2015: US research lab lets livestock suffer in quest for profit

At a remote research centre on the Nebraska plains, scientists are using surgery and breeding techniques to re-engineer the farm animal to fit the needs of the 21st-century meat industry. The potential benefits are huge: animals that produce more offspring, yield more meat and cost less to raise.

There are, however, some complications, The New York Times reports.

Pigs are having many more piglets — up to 14, instead of the usual eight — but hundreds of those newborns, too frail or crowded to move, are being crushed each year when their mothers roll over. Cows, which normally bear one calf at a time, have been retooled to have twins and triplets, which often emerge weakened or deformed, dying in such numbers that even meat producers have been repulsed.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/dining/animal-welfare-at-risk-in-experiments-for-meat-industry.html?_r=0

Then there are the lambs. In an effort to develop ‘easy care’ sheep that can survive without costly shelters or shepherds, ewes are giving birth, unaided, in open fields where newborns are killed by predators, harsh weather and starvation.

Last Mother’s Day, at the height of the birthing season, two veterinarians struggled to sort through the weekend’s toll: 25 rag-doll bodies. Five, abandoned by overtaxed mothers, had empty stomachs. Six had signs of pneumonia. Five had been savaged by coyotes.

“It’s horrible,” one veterinarian said, tossing the remains into a barrel to be dumped in a vast excavation called the dead pit.

These experiments are not the work of a meat processor or rogue operation. They are conducted by a taxpayer-financed federal institution called the US Meat Animal Research Centre, a complex of laboratories and pastures that sprawls over 55 square miles in Clay Centre, Nebraska. Little known outside the world of big agriculture, the centre has one overarching mission: helping producers of beef, pork and lamb turn a higher profit as diets shift toward poultry, fish and produce.

Since Congress founded it 50 years ago to consolidate the United States Department of Agriculture’s research on farm animals, the centre has worked to make lamb chops bigger, pork loins less fatty, steaks easier to chew. It has fought the spread of disease, fostered food safety and helped American ranchers compete in a global marketplace.

But an investigation by The New York Times shows that these endeavours have come at a steep cost to the centre’s animals, which have been subjected to illness, pain and premature death, over many years. The research to increase pig litters began in 1986; the twin calves have been dying at high rates since 1984, and the easy care lambs for 10 years.

As the decades have passed, the centre has bucked another powerful trend: a gathering public concern for the well-being of animals that has penetrated even the meat industry, which is starting to embrace the demand for humanely raised products.

It is widely accepted that experimentation on animals, and its benefits for people, will entail some distress and death. The Animal Welfare Act — a watershed federal law enacted in 1966, two years after the centre opened — aimed to minimize that suffering, yet left a gaping exemption: farm animals used in research to benefit agriculture.

To close that loophole, more than two dozen companies and universities that experiment on farm animals have sought out independent overseers and joined organizations that scrutinize their research and staff — a step the centre has resisted as far back as 1985, when a scientist wrote the director with a warning:
“Membership may bring more visibility” to its activities, “which we may not want.”

The centre’s parent agency, the Agriculture Department, strictly polices the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses and private laboratories. But it does not closely monitor the centre’s use of animals, or even enforce its own rules requiring careful scrutiny of experiments.

As a result, the centre — built on the site of a World War II-era ammunition depot a two-hour drive southwest of Omaha, and locked behind a security fence — has become a destination for the kind of high-risk, potentially controversial research that other institutions will not do or are no longer allowed to do.

“They pay tons of attention to increasing animal production, and just a pebble-sized concern to animal welfare,” said James Keen, a scientist and veterinarian who worked at the centre for 24 years.

“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 centre has done.”

Read the article HERE.
 

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