What the agricultural industry considers “normal” production practice is very different from what consumers think of as food produced with integrity. Whistleblowers, including former U.S. Meat and Animal Research Center (MARC) scientist Dr. James Keen, have exposed for decades that what is common practice in industry should not always be our standard for comparison. Someone should tell that to the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG), which just released an interim report about its MARC investigation. The OIG report defends some of MARC’s animal care practices as being acceptable because they are “in line with industry norms.”
In January, the New York Times publicized Dr. Keen’s disclosures about animal abuse at MARC in an exposé about the federally funded Nebraska facility. Investigative journalist Michael Moss combined Dr. Keen’s disclosures with interviews from other former and current MARC staff, and “a trove” of documents from the USDA detailing animal experiments since 1985, to inform the public about MARC’s experiments and animal care practices. Public outrage about the animal abuse allegations mounted quickly, with animal welfare groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) advocating for the government to defund MARC. U.S. House representatives also voiced concerns, ultimately calling for an OIG investigation in March.
The OIG’s interim report focuses on 33 statements from Moss’ article and discusses to what degree the OIG has found those statements to be true or false. While the investigation continues, the OIG has yet to evaluate many of the most shocking disclosures, including a particularly disturbing bull libido experiment conducted at MARC. Dr. Keen learned of this experiment when he responded to a co-worker’s call to help with a “downed cow” in 1989. The young cow had been immobilized and placed in a pen with six bulls, who mounted her for hours, breaking her back legs and fatally injuring her. OIG will be hard-pressed to find industry norms to justify this.
In the report, OIG cites industry norms or common practices to defend MARC’s behavior in six of the statements. For example, investigators found MARC’s piglet death rate due to being crushed by their mothers to be “in line with industry norms.” Investigators state “[t]hrough our research, we determined that this is one of the most common causes of preweaning piglet mortality in the pork industry.” However, Big Ag’s production practices are not the bellwether for what is most humane. MARC tailors its research to meet industry’s needs, so there is a feedback loop between the two. It is unconvincing to argue that MARC’s activities are acceptable simply because they are the same as industry’s often objectionable practices.
The American public is slowly waking up to what large-scale agriculture means for animal welfare, the environment, and worker rights. Moss’ article highlights one piece of a vast infrastructure that supports the massive industrial food system. Yes, the public is outraged about MARC, but what will people do when they find out what else is “normal” for Big Ag? In finishing its report, the OIG should stop framing its evaluations in terms of what’s frequently done behind closed barn doors and instead consider what the taxpaying public views as appropriate and done with integrity.
The Food Integrity Campaign began an independent investigation of MARC in May 2015 and it remains ongoing.
Roxanne Darrow is Investigation and Outreach Coordinator for the Food Integrity Campaign.