NU, USDA settle on fine in animal care violations

Sheila Burt and Sheila Burt

Northwestern paid a $9,400 civil penalty to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday to settle a component of the department’s investigations into NU’s research record keeping and the treatment of laboratory animals.

“We’re certainly pleased that the fine was in the thousands and not in the millions,” said the school’s vice president for research, C. Bradley Moore. “But we’re very anxious not to be paying fines at all, because we’d like to be (viewed) as an institution whose procedures meet federal, state and university standards.”

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the National Institutes of Health have been investigating allegations that NU violated federal regulations involving adequate staff training and the treatment of laboratory animals.

Allegations against NU include failure to ensure that research personnel were “appropriately qualified and trained,” and failure to provide the number of animals “authorized, ordered or used by species for projects,” according to the USDA’s report.

A Dec. 3 settlement agreement states that the investigation shows NU violated federal regulations involving the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which works to ensure the care and use of animals is in accordance with animal-welfare regulations.

After the USDA sent the settlement agreement, NU had 20 days to pay the fine or “face higher civil and criminal penalties for each violation,” according to the settlement.

University officials said signing the agreement does not admit or deny allegations that it violated federal regulations from September 1998 to February 2003. NU also avoided an administrative hearing by paying the fine.

Moore said other investigations into NU’s treatment of laboratory animals will continue with the USDA and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, a branch of the NIH.

Although Moore said he does not know when both investigations will be completed, he said the most recent letter from the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare “has defined solutions to the open issues.”

“We really have defined the path from our past difficulties to a future in which we are demonstrating clearly and unambiguously that we are meeting all of our obligations,” Moore said.

According to the settlement, monetary penalties or possible criminal charges “depend on the number and severity of the violations.”

Jim Rogers, spokesperson for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the USDA began the investigation for this settlement in August 2002. The investigation officially ends when the payment is received.

Rogers could not comment on the USDA’s ongoing investigation but said it involves possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Moore said the allegations arose after the USDA completed its routine and random yearly inspection and were in part a result of research support that did not increase at the same rate as the number of NU’s research projects.

He added that NU has hired more staff involved with animal care as part of a program to help the school comply with federal regulations.

“It’s important our research program meets requirements of the law,” Moore said.

The current $9,400 settlement follows a $5.5-million settlement NU paid to the U.S. government in February regarding claims that researchers misrepresented the amount of time spent on federally funded projects.