Building Public Confidence in Agricultural Animal Research

October 29, 2015

Christian E. Newcomer, VMD
Executive Director, AAALAC International

Every year at the Joint Annual Meeting attendees from the U.S. and abroad become immersed in the scientific advances and achievements that are shaping modern animal agriculture. The scholarly offerings of our dairy and animal scientists and their students are prolific, impressive and diverse, featuring findings that will improve animal production, enhance the nutritional content and quality of the world’s diet and refine the systems of management and care for the animals under our stewardship to promote their comfort, health and welfare during all life stages. Most of these findings are dependent upon data derived from agricultural research animal subjects, and the research areas of study encompass a broad range of topics including environmental and ecological impacts, animal nutrition, microbial factors in health and disease, animal ethology and agricultural economics, to name a few. As insiders, the agricultural community readily appreciates the importance and essential nature of this highly productive scientific inquiry to deliver and expand the global food supply at a reasonable cost. In contrast, the general consumer is perfectly comfortable receiving its safe, nutritious, low-cost, high-quality food, while remaining extremely vague on facts related to production, and totally oblivious to the vast amount of research that underpins the success of modern animal agriculture.

Although we should not be surprised that the general public is detached from and poorly informed about the science and practices of modern food production, we should not assume that their interest cannot be acutely piqued by sensational findings or highly visible events. One such example was the article published in the 19 January 2015 New York Times entitled, “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit,” by Michael Moss. Although the details of this article are beyond the scope of this comment, it stimulated a robust and rapid response from readers, prompted an external review of some U.S.D.A. Agricultural Research Service programs, policies and practices, and ultimately led to the introduction of a misguided bill (H.R. 746) into the 114th Congress.  The key findings of the external review indicated that improved personnel training and documentation was needed; expansion of the medical records to include all research animal subjects was required to assure adequate care; and, aspects of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) composition, training, protocol review and programmatic review required more attention to assure adequate research oversight for the protection of animal subjects during all phases of care and use. The successful resolution of problems such as these has both technical dimensions and ethical dimensions; the latter are embodied in the IACUC’s oversight activities and must animate the decisions and actions of every individual involved in the program. Ethics should lead the way in scientific advancement that is dependent upon the use of research animals.

Recent data shared publicly in 2014 (see by AAALAC International, a private, non-profit corporation that has provided a confidential assessment and accreditation program for research animal care and use for 50 years, indicated that problems within the IACUC constituted the second-highest category of findings for which correction was mandated as a condition of accreditation in programs visited between 2011-2013. However, only four percent of accredited programs registered problems in this area, indicating that most programs have IACUCs that are adequately engaged in all aspects of oversight as defined in the guidelines applicable for their program. In the case of agricultural research animal programs, the relevant guidelines are the FASS Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching, 3rd Edition (Ag Guide), which AAALAC uses as one of its three primary standards in its international accreditation program.  The role and responsibilities of the IACUC place it at the convergence of oversight, ethics, animal welfare and science.  As the first defense of agricultural animal research, programs that are not conforming to the Ag Guide would be wise to do so urgently—institutions can no longer rest on their laurels expecting to survive with a simple “trust us” attitude. Moreover, AAALAC’s experience has shown that established IACUCs benefit greatly from regular critical introspective analysis of their oversight functions to assure that their judgments and processes are thorough, fair and effectual—but AAALAC also recognizes that doing it well does not imply doing it exhaustively or impeding science with an intrusive bureaucracy.

Occupational health and safety, institutional policies, physical plant, animal management/environment and veterinary care are the other broad areas containing the majority of significant findings that must be corrected for programs to achieve AAALAC International accreditation.  AAALAC’s approach to accreditation is collegial, rigorous, and based upon the application of performance standards—rather than engineering standards or prescriptive solutions. Institutions with sufficient expertise, appropriate teamwork, buy-in and a unified cause usually have no problem figuring out the solution(s) best fitting their programs. For example, in the area of personnel education in animal care and use an organization might ask, do we know and use the best procedures? Do we have an effective training process and trainers? Do we test and verify the proficiency of trainees?  And finally, can we assure that trained personnel will be consistently proficient and not deviate into unacceptable practices?  There is considerable latitude in the route and methods an institution can choose to achieve a successful training outcome that is well-defined and promotes animal comfort, health and welfare.  (And we can all agree that a porous training strategy that results in instances of animal harm is both unethical and has adverse consequences for science.)  In the five decades AAALAC has operated its accreditation program, hundreds of research programs around the world have experienced the value, efficiency and effectiveness of this type of flexible, performance standards, peer-reviewed approach to maintaining program excellence.

As AAALAC International celebrates its 50th Anniversary, we proudly note that our voluntary, expert peer review process has advanced research animal welfare and improved the conditions for scientific inquiry.  We also hope the number of AAALAC accredited programs in the research animal agricultural community will continue to grow in the coming years. However, regardless of the method chosen to assure program quality and benchmark against contemporary standards and practices, we should all join together in educating the public about our research endeavors and assure them that our programs of support for agricultural animal research are comprehensive, thoughtful, effective and caring.  This will not only assuage the public’s concerns, but will also help build support for the research mission and vision for the future that fuels our collective dedication.