A team of investigators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking into the UW-Madison's record of citations regarding the use of animals in research, which could lead to fines or other sanctions.
"They're going to go back and look at every citation from mid-2007 until now," says Eric Sandgren, director of the UW-Madison's Research Animal Resources Center.
Sandgren says the investigation actually began in July, in concert with an inspection that resulted in citations for alleged violations. The more in-depth probe, which began Monday, will involve nine USDA investigators a main coordinator and four teams of two who'll be in Madison for an extended stay. Each team will focus on a given area: animal facilities, veterinary care issues, the university's animal care and use committees, and complaints.
"They'll look at records and interview people," says Sandgren. "I'm guessing it will go on for a couple of weeks."
The investigation is related to the high number of citations issued by USDA inspectors over violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Sandgren says 43 separate citations have been issued since 2007, including 20 from a single surprise inspection last December, which identified problems with cleanliness, communication and record-keeping.
"If we had zero citations," says Sandgren, the inspection would not be happening. But he notes that the UW "strongly disagrees" with some of the citations and feels the investigation will provide fresh opportunities for the university to challenge them on the merits. At least some violations were corrected to the USDA's satisfaction on re-inspection, but new violations were found at an inspection last July.
"They are looking to find whether they can back up the citations with evidence," he says. "They'll drop off any citations that are not supported."
In an email to colleagues earlier this year, Sandgren noted that the USDA has decided to take a tougher stance on animal-care issues than it has in the past, with one official referring to transitioning to an "age of enforcement." He guesses that preparing a report and deciding what penalties to levy could take until early next year.
Jim Barrett, a Maryland-based spokesperson for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, confirms that an investigation is underway but was unable this week to provide details.
Madison primate activist Rick Bogle, in a blog post he says is based on information from inside sources, writes that the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), a group that promotes animal experimentation, "has been contacted by worried scientists and is said to be alarmed at the possible national impact of the likely findings" of the UW probe.
Responds spokesperson Liz Hodge, "[I]t's NABR policy not to comment on ongoing investigations at specific universities."