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Animal Treatment at Nebraska Research Center Sparks National Controversy

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A report finds no evidence of wrongdoing, after explosive allegations from the New York Times claimed a USDA research center was subjecting animals to "illness, pain and premature death."

The New York Times reports the "high-risk, potentially controversial research" has been happening quietly for years at the Meat Animal Research Center, a USDA facility near Clay Center.

The Times reports cattle are bred to give birth to twins, resulting in deformities and death. The newspaper also said defenseless sheep were left to die.

MARC Background

NTV visited the center during its 50th anniversary in 2014, where the director called it the largest cattle research center in the world.

Dr. John Pollak said they've helped popularize cattle breeds like Simmental, Charolais and Limousin that are now common in the industry.

The center director said MARC's work has helped ranchers do things better.

During the April, 2014 interview, Pollak said, "Our knowledge base is growing rapidly and we're adding to it this concept of having production be sustainable from both social, environmental, and economic component which is what producers have been doing for years anyway."

HSUS Calls Practices Cruel

Groups like the Humane Society of the United States call it a "house of horrors" that carries on "ghoulish," "morbid," and "cruel."

HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle said USDA has been overly influenced by what he calls factory farming.

On his blog, Pacelle writes, "The Center is just a particularly morbid example of how the government is subsidizing factory farming to the tune of billions of dollars a year."

Independent Panel Finds No Wrongdoing

Now an independent panel has weighed in, and finds "no evidence of poor animal handling, animal abuse, or inadequate veterinary care."

The report was produced by a panel of experts from universities across the country, coordinated by the USDA's Agricultural Research Center.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack calls for more oversight, something research partners at the University of Nebraska agree with.

UNL Stand By Research

UNL Dean of Research Archie Clutter said, "We certainly support those recommendations and would welcome any recommendations for how improved clarity and strengthened oversight could improve our collaboration with USDA."

The university has around 100 staff members at the center. University leaders stand by their work, saying reports of animal abuse are not consistent with what they have seen.

Clutter said, "There's a lot of value that comes out of the center and our experience is the people there care a lot about the animals and there is good animal care there."

On his blog, the university's Dean of Agriculture Dr. Ronnie Green wrote it's part of a veiled agenda "where a significant misrepresentation of important, valuable and highly impactful long-term federal animal science research has been portrayed to an unknowing public as 'fact' when it is actually 'opinion.'"

Cattleman: Report Illustrates Anti-Ag Agenda

NTV also reached out to an Iowa cattleman on a focus group at MARC.

Dave Nichols called the New York Times article a "hit piece".

"The New York Times has little regard for starving people and the challenge of increasing food production by 50 percent in the next half-century," Nichols said.

He added that he has visited MARC at least 15 times since it opened 51 years ago. Nichols said the report reflects the growing disconnect with agriculture.

He said, "Too many people are too far removed from producing food. Too many are poorly informed. Too many do not understand the difference between domesticated animals and their wild ancestors from 50,000 years ago. Most domesticated dogs would not last long in the wild, nor would most domesticated livestock. Not many humans would either. This is the world we live in."

For its part, the HSUS CEO says the USDA needs to stop funding "torture," saying it's like giving government money to tobacco companies to make better cigarettes.

Panel Recommends Changes

The independent report finds the center does use best industry practices in many areas, and while animals are well-cared for, the panel said MARC needs better policies and more accountability. The panel says employees should be informed of whistleblower policies.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack has called for a new position of animal ombudsman to have independent oversight of research.

USDA is also taking public comments online for the next week. They can be emailed to ahwrpanel@usda.gov.

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