Indiana Cow Farm
Cows are seen in the holding pen in an Indiana milking parlor. At a separate facility, the federally-run Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska, cows and other farm animals are reportedly subject to cruel and experimental breeding techniques, a New York Times investigation found. Reuters

U.S. agriculture officials are calling for an independent review of the Meat Animal Research Center, a federal facility where lambs, pigs and cows are reportedly being subjected to cruel and experimental breeding techniques. U.S Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday directed agency staff to create an updated animal welfare plan within 60 days, according to an internal email reviewed by Reuters.

The memo was sent to all Animal Research Service employees in response to a New York Times investigation published this week, which exposed widespread animal abuse at the research complex in Nebraska. Scientists are re-engineering farm animals to produce more offspring and yield more meat -- and at a lower cost -- in a process that subjects animals to “illness, pain and premature death, over many years,” according to the Times report. Pigs are being retooled to have up to 14 piglets, instead of the typical eight, but the babies are born frail and often end up crushed to death in overcrowded pens. Calves are born in greater numbers, but are weak and deformed.

“Please remember we all own the responsibility for animal welfare; if you see something that disturbs you, please report it, first to your supervisor or their supervisor,” Chavonda Jacobs-Young, who heads the department’s Agricultural Research Service, said in the Friday memo.

The strategy outlined by Jacobs-Young and Vilsack includes convening an independent panel to review the group’s animal handling protocols, policies and research practices, according to Reuters. It will also include updated training for government employees, though further details were not disclosed in the memo.

The Times investigation sparked outrage among animal rights advocates and average Americans. Times readers expressed dismay that the Nebraska research center is funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars and has been operating quietly for five decades.

“To know that public funds support such depraved behavior (under the guise of science) is further stomach-turning,” Jane Kristal of Massachusetts said in a Jan. 20 letter to the editor. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote, “Is it any wonder that millions of Americans are now cutting their meat consumption and eating higher-welfare animal products when this is how government and agribusiness handle their animal-care responsibilities?”

Animal Research Service officials did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on Friday evening. E. John Pollak, who directs the Meat Animal Research Center, declined to be interviewed for the Times story. In written responses, U.S. agriculture officials said the Nebraska center abides by federal rules on animal welfare, and many current and former employees defended the center’s work.

In her email, Jacobs-Young also named Eileen Thacker, a national program leader in food safety and animal health, as the unit’s first animal welfare ombudsman. Employees were advised to contact Thacker if they believed their complaints weren’t being properly addressed, Reuters noted.