USDA warns Birmingham's Southern Research Institute after research animals' deaths

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USDA warns Birmingham's Southern Research Institute after research animals' deaths

By Jeff Hansen, The Birmingham News, April 28, 2011

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued an official warning letter to Southern Research Institute for two animal care lapses in 2009.

In one, attributed to employee error, two ferrets died from overheating after mistakenly being left outside and two other overheated ferrets recovered after treatment. In the other, attributed to missing or unused safety clips, a macaque suffocated when it stuck its head out of an improperly secured cage.

Southern Research was cited for failure to handle animals in a manner that does not cause trauma, overheating, physical harm or unnecessary discomfort.

An official warning letter from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service puts the recipient on notice that any further violations may result in a civil penalty or criminal prosecution.

The USDA inspection report of these two incidents in January said that Southern Research's correction and preventive measures appeared to be sufficient to prevent any recurrence -<>'.

The inspection came after an Ohio watchdog group, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, filed complaints to the USDA. SAEN uses Freedom of Information requests to monitor animal research at labs across the United States.

Michael Budkie -- the executive director of SAEN who had asked the USDA in March to fine Southern Research $10,000 per animal death -- said he was disappointed to see only a warning.

"Considering two separate incidents that killed animals, they should have at least been fined," he said. "Without meaningful fines, labs don't have the incentive not to be repeat offenders."

This week SAEN also released leaked Southern Research documents of another animal welfare lapse that occurred in 2007.

According to an internal Southern Research memorandum in August 2007, two trays of eggs that were not inoculated with influenza virus had been incubated too long. A technician found that live chicks were actively peeping and pecking their way out of the shells.

The supervisor -- who later expressed sincere regrets and took full responsibility, according to the memo -- told another technician to dispose of the chicks by bagging them and running them through an autoclave, a device that operates like a pressure cooker to sterilize equipment or kill dangerous microbes with steam and high heat.

The memorandum investigating the incident found that the Southern Research veterinary staff was not contacted by the supervisor. The memo concluded: "Our investigation indicates that live, viable hatchlings were inexplicably autoclaved to death. ... The disposal of the hatchlings is in violation of corporate policy and acceptable standards of humane animal use."

Southern Research Public Relations Manager Rhonda Jung said Wednesday that, after the 2007 incident, "remedial actions and disciplinary actions were taken immediately, as soon as it was brought to our attention. I can confirm that our quick response .€.€. resolved the incident."

Budkie called the autoclaving "inexcusable."

"There was no reason whatsoever to kill those animals that way," he said.

The nonprofit Southern Research conducts basic and applied research in Alabama (particularly at its Southside campus and headquarters) Maryland and North Carolina in drug discovery, preclinical drug development, advanced engineering and environmental protection.

Jung said Southern Research does vitally important drug research, including helping develop seven anti-cancer drugs now used by cancer patients.

"Because our work is also highly regulated, we follow stringent guidelines and regulatory agencies routinely inspect our facilities and practices," she said in a written statement. "We continue to place a high premium on animal care and safety, and continuously train and update training for our employees. This work is challenging, yet required as part of the search for new cures and therapies. We sincerely regret any such incident and respond as quickly and responsibly as possible."

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See also... Southern Research Institute - Birmingham, AL

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