We believe that the vast majority of scientists who study animals and the professionals charged with providing them care have a deep regard for animal welfare. However, as in any field, some people lack commitment to the standards of their profession, and this casts a shadow over everyone else. After all, how can people know whether this behavior is the exception or the rule?
Santa Cruz Biotechnology (SCBT) is a major producer of antibody products that stands accused of major animal welfare violations. Antibodies are substances produced by certain white blood cells as part of the body’s immune defenses. Their job is to tag foreign proteins, marking them for destruction by other cells in the immune system. Due to their widespread usefulness, antibodies sales is a multi-billion dollar a year business. Because each antibody targets a specific protein, they are important for both medicine and research. Since antibodies latch onto proteins that are markers for specific diseases, doctors can use them to diagnose these conditions in patients. Doctors also use antibodies to treat certain diseases, including some cancers. Researchers use antibodies to detect the presence of particular proteins and also to isolate proteins within a sample of blood or tissue.
Commercial antibody production usually involves injecting animals with a foreign protein and then collecting blood to harvest the antibodies generated in response to that protein. When done correctly, this process should not cause any pain or distress to the animal. Antibody production is most commonly done in rabbits, although sometimes large animals such as goats and donkeys are used since they are able to provide larger blood samples without ill effects to them.
Research institutions that conduct animal research must register their facilities with the USDA and comply with the requirements of Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Companies that use large animals to produce antibodies also fall under the AWA. However, as has been widely reported, SCBT stands accused of repeated, severe violations of many of the USDA’s AWA regulations (Nature, The Scientist, The New Yorker, the Mercury News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Monterey Herald).
The USDA uses a risk-based inspection system to focus more of its resources on facilities where there is a history of problems. SCBT was subject to a whopping nine unannounced inspections by the USDA in 2012 because of problems noted in previous years. Each of those inspections documented inadequate veterinary care at the SCBT facility. Its record of Animal Welfare Act violations was deemed to be so serious that on July 19, 2012, the USDA issued a formal complaint against the company. The complaint cited such serious problems as a lack of adequate veterinary care, improper handling of the animals, and poorly-trained animal care personnel.
A USDA complaint is a legal document requiring the recipient to address the concerns raised. Most institutions that are subject to such a complaint respond by working with the agency to rectify the situation by bringing their program into compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. However, SCBT has not attempted to do so. Rather, it plans to respond to the charges at a hearing scheduled for July 14-18, 2014.
Even after the USDA issued its July 2012 complaint against SCBT, the company did not mend its ways. On October 31, 2012, USDA inspectors reported finding SCBT animal facilities that had never been registered with the agency or inspected as required by law. The inspectors also said that some of the animals at this secret facility were in poor health.
The New Yorker reportedly contacted SCBT’s attorney, who said that the company “has strong defenses that will be addressed in the litigation.” Our U.S. legal system upholds the principle of innocent until proven guilty so we do not want to jump to conclusions. Nevertheless, if these serious allegations are true, then SCBT deserves condemnation for its callous treatment of animals.
Alice Ra’anan and Bill Yates