Basu: Mistreatment at animal research center reveals larger issues


Pia Basu, Columnist

By 2050, there will be more than 9 billion people on Earth, and human beings’ demand for meat will have doubled since 2000. With a large population and such huge demand, producing so much meat in a way that is safe, humane and sustainable is a seemingly impossible challenge.

By creating the United States Meat Animal Research Center 50 years ago in Clay Center, Nebraska, the U.S. government attempted “to increase efficiency of production while maintaining a lean, high quality product; therefore, the research ultimately benefits the consumer as well as the production and agri-business sectors of animal agriculture,” according to the Center’s website.

However, as New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss found, there are significant animal welfare issues at this center as a result of the surgery and genetic techniques that are used.

“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,” the report said. “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.”

Moss notes that taxpayer dollars fund the organization controlled by the Department of Agriculture and that the testing has occurred since the 1980s despite the 1966 Animal Welfare Act. The Center is able to do this because the Department of Agriculture does not monitor the Center’s use of animals and only inspects slaughterhouses and laboratories.

The treatment of animals in such a way is clearly reprehensible and soundly inhumane. Though scientists and farmers face a seemingly insurmountable challenge of trying to meet demand for animal products, this Center causes unnecessary pain and suffering for the animals involved. Genetically mutating animals in any way is a cruel process driven by consumers’ happiness as opposed to concern for animal welfare or even nutrition for humans. To perform grotesque experiments and surgeries that cause sentient animals to live in life-threatening danger and agony is truly heinous. Worse, it is something that American taxpayers have, for the most part, unknowingly supported.

It goes without saying that most of the animals raised for production in the United States are funneled through the factory farming system, in which the vast majority of them are confined to small cages and crates in windowless buildings, forced to live out the entirety of their lives in the dark. Despite laws that prevent or hinder journalists from recording or videotaping inside slaughterhouses in several states, the available descriptions of factory farm conditions are extremely upsetting to most people.

Realistically, the mass factory farming of animals is not going to stop any time soon. But the egregious treatment of animals at the Center should be put to an end as soon as possible; there must be government oversight and accountability in place if the Center is going to continue to exist. The idea that publicly funded suffering has persisted on such a scale should repulse all Americans, regardless of their thoughts on eating meat.

Following the article, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA), wrote and introduced legislation called The Aware Act, which would include farm animals at testing centers in the definition of “animal” under the Animal Welfare Act, thereby granting them some protection. Lawmakers from both political parties and chambers have expressed their support for the legislation.

Should the bill pass, it still won’t even come close to addressing the intractable problems within the meat production cycle and industry. Demanding transparency so taxpayers know where their money is going and seeking accountability for one laboratory is necessary. But most of us still eat from and pay into a system in which factory farming, genetic manipulation and the torture and mistreatment of animals is seen as a necessary step required for feeding the planet. The recent expose about the Center is important especially if it causes legislation to pass, but it is just one indication of how, in most cases, our sustenance comes from misery.

Pia Basu is a Medill freshman. She can be reached at [email protected].  If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].