Last week—following criticism from bipartisan Congress members, citizens, press, and advocacy groups like the White Coat Waste Project, a nonprofit that seeks to eliminate cruel, wasteful and unnecessary taxpayer-funded animal testing—the U.S. Department of Agriculture began to reverse course on its unjustifiable animal welfare database blackout. It started by restoring documents about government and other animal laboratories. This is a crucial resource, but we’re still fighting systemic government transparency failures about $15 billion in wasteful taxpayer-funded experimentation on dogs and other animals.
Months before the recent USDA purge — a scandal first exposed by WCW— we released "Spending to Death," a report documenting cruel and unnecessary government dog experiments, and a troubling abundance of secrecy about the practice and what it costs.
As reported in the Washington Post, we used the now-notorious USDA animal welfare database to reveal that agencies—including Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health and others—subjected more than 1,100 dogs to experiments in 2015. The USDA data indicated that this number had increased from the year before, and that one quarter of these dogs were subjected to experiments involving pain and distress. These basic figures are not available elsewhere, so it’s encouraging that USDA is in the process of restoring access to these documents. For non-federal animal laboratories, the database also includes evidence of any abuses documented by government inspectors, which can be grounds for losing taxpayer funding.
However, beyond the animal use numbers on the USDA site (which notably exclude mice and rats, who comprise 95 percent of animals used in laboratories), other publicly-available details about how dogs and other animals are used are scarce. It is estimated that across the nation, federal agencies are funding the abuse and death of tens of millions of animals in laboratories every year.
We did triangulate some information to determine that government agencies are purchasing months-old beagle, hound and mutt puppies and subjecting them to abuses including forced heart attacks and tick infestations. But overall, with very few exceptions, the agencies using tax money for painful and deadly dog experiments fail to disclose what they are doing, how much they are spending, the purpose or the outcome. In many cases, it appears agencies intentionally omit or obscure information to prevent scrutiny.
Our top recommendation in the report: "Provide Transparency."
Thankfully, we attracted the attention of Congress. Citing our work, a bipartisan group led by Reps. Ken Calvert (R-CA) and Dina Titus (D-NV) asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct an audit of systems for public disclosure about federally-funded animal experiments. In their December GAO request, they wrote: "Such transparency and accounting deficiencies prevent assessments by Congress and the public of the cost-efficiency and effectiveness of what we estimate to be a multi-billion-dollar government enterprise."
A companion letter to the GAO from Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) stated:
Transparency about federal spending on animal research is especially critical given some evidence suggesting that such research is often wasteful and inefficient. ... Government transparency and accountability are cornerstones of our democracy. The public has a right to know how federal agencies spend their tax dollars and whether this spending improves American lives. Congress must also have access to this information in order to assess the effectiveness of government programs and prevent waste, fraud and abuse.
For instance, since 2000 there has been an interagency government programcharged with facilitating the reduction and replacement of expensive and inaccurate animal testing for chemical toxicity with more efficient alternatives like cell-based tests and computer models. However, the 15 federal agencies that participate in the program do not report how many animals are used in tests they conduct or require, so there is no way to measure the progress of this important effort. Even the head of the program recently stated, "We need a way to measure success quantitatively."
To address this problem, earlier this month bipartisan Congress members introduced the Federal Accountability in Chemical Testing (FACT) Act. With over 30 Republican and Democratic cosponsors, the common-sense bill improves existing biennial reporting requirements so that agencies must include the number of animals they use, their species, and for what tests.
A WCW review conducted in support of the FACT Act uncovered unnecessary, multi-million-dollar government tests that involve poisoning animals with massive force-fed doses of herbal supplements sold for sexual dysfunction, cosmetics ingredients and even components from green tea and french fries.
As members of Congress expressed in their requests to GAO, transparency about taxpayer-funded animal experiments is critical to identifying waste and abuse.
The NIH laments that 90 percent of drugs that work in animal tests fail in humans because they are dangerous or ineffective. In the agency’s current Strategic Plan, it writes, "animal models often fail to provide good ways to mimic disease or predict how drugs will work in humans, resulting in much wasted time and money while patients wait for therapies." Still, 47 percent of the agency’s $32 billion budget is spent on animal experiments.
At an NIH lecture last year titled, "Inefficiency and Waste in Biomedical Research," the former President of the American College of Epidemiology reported that as much as 87.5 percent of biomedical research—especially animal experimentation—is flawed, redundant or completely unnecessary.
This is clearly cause for a serious reappraisal of research funding decisions. Yet, when we asked via a Freedom of Information Act request, NIH could not even determine what other federal agencies it funds animal experimentation at.
Americans may disagree on many things, but this isn’t one of them. A recent Lincoln Park Strategies poll of 1,100 voters found that a supermajority—73 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats—want more transparency about taxpayer-funded animal experiments.
USDA restoring its animal welfare database is a start, but major reforms are still needed to ensure transparency and accountability about billions in wasteful government spending for outdated and unnecessary experiments on dogs and other animals.
Visit FACTact.org to urge Congress to support the bipartisan Federal Accountability in Chemical Testing (FACT) Act (HR 816) to increase transparency about government animal testing.