Pi Bioscientific in Redmond was also cited for problems in 2016. Activists seek photos taken by inspectors, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture cites invasion of privacy and possible embarrassment as reasons for keeping any pictures secret.
Federal inspectors last month found several goats and sheep that had difficulty walking and overgrown hooves at a Redmond research facility previously cited for serious problems in 2016.
Pi Bioscientific, which is partly owned by the well-known Seattle food-safety expert Mansour Samadpour of IEH Laboratories, uses the animals as living factories to produce antibodies for kits that test for the presence of food allergens.
The new animal-welfare violations, which included a thin female goat with swollen joints and another goat unable to walk properly due to an apparently painful hind leg, were noted in a March 1 inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. An additional six goats and sheep had overgrown hooves, which the report notes can lead to lameness and can stress joints and ligaments.
A follow-up inspection on March 21 found four goats still had overgrown hooves.
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Samadpour, who works with companies like Costco and Chipotle to prevent and detect food contamination, said in an email that all the recent problems have been corrected and that he has instituted weekly inspections to prevent future violations.
The 2016 inspection found dirty, unsafe conditions at the facilities and noted many of the animals suffered from “numerous medical ailments and severe health issues.”
The animal-welfare group Stop Animal Exploitation Now, or SAEN, which monitors the care of research animals across the country, said Pi Bioscientific had more animal-welfare violations over the past two years than any other research facility in Washington. SAEN asked the USDA to impose the maximum fine of $10,000 per infraction.
The company’s inspection records are the subject of a Freedom of Information Act dispute between USDA and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. Though USDA regulations require inspectors to take photographs or videos to document serious and repeated violations, the agency refused to even confirm photos exist from Pi Bioscientific.
USDA argued that acknowledging the existence of any photos would constitute a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and would present the potential for “embarrassment.”
“I think that’s outrageous,” said Delcianna Winders, the PETA Foundation’s vice president and deputy general counsel. “FOIA exemptions do not exist to protect a corporate entity that is violating the law from being embarrassed.”
A USDA spokesperson said PETA’s appeal of the decision is undergoing a second review.
Many people aren’t aware animals are routinely used to produce antibodies used for research, food testing and in a range of consumer products, said PETA biologist Jeffrey Brown. Even products advertised as animal-friendly may be produced or tested using antibodies from animals, says a 2016 opinion piece in the Cell Press journal Trends in Biotechnology.
Animals, often goats, are injected with the substance of interest, such as food allergens like soy or gluten, Brown explained. The animal’s body then undergoes what’s called a hyperimmune response, producing large quantities of antibodies. The animals are bled, and the antibodies are extracted from their blood.
Policies in the European Union encourage alternative methods of producing antibodies, such as using viruses instead of animals. But there’s no such policy in the U.S., Brown said.
One of the United States’ largest antibody producers was fined $3.5 million and largely shut down by the USDA in 2016 after a string of major violations including mistreatment of goats, housing rabbits under cruel conditions and concealing an entire facility from the government.
Pi Bioscientific is a much tinier operation. Its latest annual report to the USDA lists four sheep and 26 goats. Samadpour, who also specializes in uncovering mislabeled fish and other food fraud, said the facility produces only a “very small portion” of the antibodies IEH Laboratories uses in its test kits. Many of the animals are old and would have been slaughtered if the company hadn’t bought them at auction, he added.
USDA inspectors recommended the company euthanize the thin goat with swollen joints spotted during the most recent inspection. But the company’s vet determined the animal was suffering from a chronic, slow viral infection and should be allowed to live, Samadpour said. He also said the animals have full-time caretakers and several acres of pasture to roam freely.
“The team’s instructions have been that the animals’ comfort is the foremost goal, regardless of cost,” Samadpour wrote in the email. Among the improvements implemented after the most recent inspection are more frequent hoof trimming and “zero tolerance” for overgrown hooves, he added.