Wednesday, April 3, 2019

On Tuesday, the Agricultural Research Service, an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture, announced it has ceased all use of cats in experiments. This came after months of internal review and public objection to a controversial research practice involving the use of cats to study the toxoplasmosis parasite.

According to the official press release, “ARS toxoplasmosis research has reached its maturity and ARS considers the project’s objectives for agriculture achieved. While there is still additional research needed in this area regarding human health, this research area is outside of USDA’s stated mission.” The agency plans to redirect toxoplasmosis resources to other food-borne illnesses.

According to a report from the White Coat Waste Project, a nonprofit opposing animal testing, the practice in question involves feeding eight-week-old cats meat acquired in markets outside the United States and then using them as incubators to produce Toxoplasma gondii eggs for study. The ARS began using this technique in 1982. As put by Justin Goodman, vice president of the White Coat Waste Project, this was done in order to “understand how widespread the parasitic disease is in animals around the world.” He continued, claiming, “at eight weeks, [scientists] would feed them infected meat, harvest parasitic eggs from their feces to be used in other experiments, then kill them.” According to the USDA, T. gondii can only produce eggs when it is inside a cat.

The practice became widely known to the public after the White Coat Waste Project reported the USDA would feed the cats meat from dogs and from other cats. The public outcry in the wake of what its critics call the “kitten cannibalism” revelation drove the drafting of “Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act of 2018” to be considered in the United States House of Representatives, proposed by Republican Mike Bishop of Michigan and Democrat Jimmy Panetta of California. A Senate version of the bill is was proposed by Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, toxoplasmosis is one of the most common causes of lethal food-borne illness in the United States, and as many as 40 million people within the country may be infected. Though most show no symptoms, it can be lethal in people with weak immune systems, such as children. The ARS claims its research has cut the rate of infection with T. gondii by 50%.

Merkley responded to the cessation of the practice by saying, “The USDA made the right decision today, and I applaud them for their willingness to change course.”

Panetta responded to the move with, “I commend the USDA for their decision to end this type of testing on kittens. They listened to the people and responded appropriately to our concerns. This is how our institutions, our government, and our democracy should and must work.”

Republican Congressman Brian Mast of Florida said, “With all the awful reports coming out, it was clear that Americans opposed USDA’s cruel testing on kittens. This is a decisive victory against government animal abuse and wasteful spending.”

According to the ARS’s announcement, an independent panel declared it would not be safe for human health to allow adoption of any T. gondii-infected cats, but they have not had any since last September. They plan to allow USDA employees to adopt the remaining 14 uninfected cats.