A look at the ongoing USDA investigation into a local medical lab
There is a cruel irony in the fact that the local medical production lab, Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Inc. develops antibodies and animal healthcare products—products such as vaccines, antibiotics and pain relievers for ranch animals, like goats—but has also repeatedly violated the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) by allowing many of the goats that they use for producing those antibodies to suffer horribly and, in some cases, die.
Regular inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted over the course of six years have resulted in an ongoing investigation and, on July 19 of last year, a formal complaint against the company, which has its lab headquarters on the Westside's Delaware Avenue. It also has facilities in Dallas, Tex., Germany and Shanghai, China.
The USDA's citations include overdrawing blood from the goats, harvesting blood from dangerously sick animals, failing to provide prompt care for animals in bad health, failing to monitor animals, resulting in starvation and disease, and failing to euthanize goats with painful and untreatable symptoms in order to regularly harvest their blood.
These goats are injected with disease pathogens so their blood cells produce antibodies, which Santa Cruz Biotechnology then extracts and markets to labs all over the world for scientific research.
Based on the USDA reports, the national nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a case on behalf of the Ohio-based animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN) against “Santa Cruz Biotech” on Jan. 17.
The lawsuit is the first to be filed against an animal research lab under California cruelty laws and Unfair Competition Law, according to ALDF attorney Chris Berry.
The ALDF claims that Santa Cruz Biotech's practices distort the market by allowing the company to produce antibodies while cutting corners and avoiding animal care expenses in order to maximize profits, Berry says.
The violations date back to at least October of 2006 and have been documented by the USDA as recently as Dec. 19, 2012. According to the formal complaint submitted by the ALDF to the Superior Court of Santa Cruz County, their illegal practices are ongoing.
In 2012 alone, the company's local animal facility— a 200-acre ranch where 10,000 goats and 5,000 rabbits are kept—was inspected 10 times. “That's highly unusual,” says Michael Budkie, co-founder and executive director of SAEN.
The USDA sends Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) agents, most of whom are veterinarians, to every facility registered with the USDA to conduct unannounced inspections, similar to drop-ins by restaurant health inspectors.
“That's a way for us to get a genuine picture of the way these facilities are treating their animals,” says USDA spokesman David Sacks.
The frequency of visits correlates with the number violations found, he explains—a risk-based scheduling system. Depending on the degree of harm involved, the USDA can fine a company, suspend its license or even revoke it entirely.
“We always seek to match the penalty to the actual violation and keep it appropriate,” Sacks says.
Because it's an ongoing case, Sacks says he is limited in how much he can say. The APHIS inspection reports, which are published on the USDA website, however, provide lots of detail.
According to a May 12 APHIS report from last year, an inspector identified a goat lying on its side bleating loudly, suffering from a severe case of pneumonia. It died in front of the inspector. In August of last year, an inspector reported a goat had such a low weigh that its ribs were protruding dramatically. When the inspector informed the company's staff, they did not provide treatment but were found later to have continued harvesting its blood. Two other goats had wounded limbs and no bandaging.
On Oct. 31, APHIS inspectors discovered a fully operational production site operated by Santa Cruz Biotechnology called “H7,” just nine miles away from the main ranch. The existence of the site, which APHIS reports say housed 841 goats, several of which were severely sick, was previously denied by Santa Cruz Biotechnology personnel.
“Facility staff, including three attending veterinarians, were all asked during past inspections if goats were being housed elsewhere, to which they all answered, negative,” the report reads.
The report continues on to say that 12 of the goats at H7 were in very poor condition and not receiving an veterinary services on location. Inspectors also discovered hazardous pieces of PVC piping and rusted metal in a large paddock just outside H7 where goats are kept. The rabbits known to be owned by the company are not mentioned in the APHIS inspection reports.
A spokesperson for Santa Cruz Biotechnology did not return any of Good Times’ requests an interview.
Berry, with ALDF, says the subject of the complaints against Santa Cruz Biotechnology are especially egregious.
“The magnitude of the suffering of the goats in the USDA inspection reports makes this a special case,” he says. “There are repeated instances of animal suffering that could have easily been avoided, and they're going on year after year after year.”
Budkie filed repeated complaints with the USDA against the local company leading up to the investigation by USDA.
On Nov. 6, Budkie wrote a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, that reads: “It has become extremely clear that the staff of Santa Cruz Biotech is either totally unable or unwilling to care for animals in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act. It is also clear that the continuing incidents of inadequate veterinary care are of an extremely serious nature, resulting in the deaths of multiple animals.”
Budkie's name is well-known at USDA as an animal
“He's a good watchdog,” Sacks says. “He keeps these facilities in his sights and reaches out to USDA pretty frequently.”
Budkie and SAEN hold the position that animals should not be used for medical testing, which gets into a broader debate that the USDA stays out of.
“You've got different schools of thought [out there],” Sacks says. “There are some individuals who don't want animals used in medical research at all, and others who think it's a wonderful thing, as long as the animals are taken care of, because they might cure Parkinson's disease or something of that nature.”
“USDA is right down the middle of the road,” he adds. “Ideological debates are for these other groups. We're simply here to ensure these animals are humanely cared for. And at this point in time, using animals for medical research—that's a legal business.”
The USDA had a deadline to reach a settlement agreement with Santa Cruz Biotech by Jan. 31 this year, but that day passed without action.
“Now things are pointing in the direction of a hearing,” Sacks says. “That would involve both parties appearing before a USDA administrative law judge to adjudicate the issue within the law of the Animal Welfare Act.”
The hearing will not be set until sometime after Sept. 9, he says.
The USDA filed their complaint against the local company for 20 citations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. If a USDA judge finds them in violation on all counts, the company could face up to a $200,000 penalty, according to Sacks.
Meanwhile, SAEN and the ALDF await response from Santa Cruz Biotechnology on their legal actions.
Sacks says that until verdicts are reached, Santa Cruz Biotechnology is within legal boundary to conduct their business operations however they see fit.
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