US Department of Agriculture fines UC Berkeley for 2011 lab animal deaths

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In response to a UC Berkeley laboratory experiment that resulted in the deaths of lab animals in 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it will fine the university for violating the Animal Welfare Act.

The experiment, which took place in August 2011, required small rodents called voles to be periodically moved to opaque boxes. Due to miscommunication among staff members, the care staff in charge of hydrating the voles was not informed the rodents had been moved that Thursday. When the graduate students returned next Tuesday, five of the animals had died of dehydration.

Although the incident occurred in 2011 and was immediately reported by the campus, the inspection did not take place until 2012, and the university did not hear from the USDA again until the fine was announced Tuesday.

The university is being fined $8,750, a measure that Alka Chandna, a laboratory oversight specialist with PETA, says is not stringent enough to ultimately curb negligence.

“Fines are so low that institutions see the fines as a cost of conducting business,” Chandna said. “They’re not much of a deterrent.”

The Animal Welfare Act requires those studying certain warm-blooded animals to uphold a standard of care. Failure to comply can result in fines and other civil and criminal charges. Additionally, all institutions that receive money from the National Institutes of Health, including UC Berkeley, must comply with federal regulations provided by the NIH or risk loss of funding.

A 2012 inspection report by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service stated that the campus laboratory addressed the 2011 incident by bolstering communication concerning the whereabouts and numbers of lab animals.

According to Roger Van Andel, director of the campus’s Office of Laboratory Animal Care, UC Berkeley has historically received “exemplary ratings” for laboratory animal care, and the university is more interested in ensuring animal welfare than taking punitive action against those involved.

“This was a very unfortunate and unacceptable incident that is clearly outside of the norm for our high quality program,” Van Andel said in an email.

Though the campus has never been fined for such violations, UC Berkeley reported 12 instances of noncompliance with NIH regulations between August 2008 and July 2010.

Several UC campuses have also come under fire for similar transgressions. According to the California Aggie, UC Davis’ student newspaper, 19 rhesus macaque monkeys died at the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis after their diseases were not properly treated. The USDA cited the university but did not issue a fine after improvements were made.

“We see that these patterns become ingrained,” Chandna said. “It’s a culture of noncompliance, of disregard. People are just getting their hands slapped, and it seems as if the government is enabling these institutions to continue this behavior.”

Contact Michelle Pitcher at [email protected].