Research groups say the additional paperwork that USDA would require will cost biomedical laboratories $80 million to $90 million, money now going into scientific studies. The department reached the agreement in an out-of-court settlement that has yet to be approved by a federal judge.
USDA's regulations under the Animal Welfare Act are now limited to larger animals, such as chimpanzees, cats and guinea pigs.
"This is a significant victory for animals," said Tina Nelson, executive director of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, an animal rights group. "The more than 90 percent of animals used in laboratories who currently have no legal protection could now be covered by federal law."
USDA spokesman Andy Solomon said the proposed settlement was "prudent and responsible." Once the settlement is approved, the department will propose rules for regulating rodents and birds, and both animal rights activists and researchers will have a chance to comment on them, he said.
Scientists who oppose the move by the department say that mice, rats and birds already are sufficiently protected because of much of the research is done under grants from government health agencies that have animal-care standards.
"From our point of view we don't see the value of duplicate regulations that are very expensive, that are not going to improve animal welfare, especially when this agency doesn't have the resources to do what they are properly doing now," said Barbara Rich, executive vice president for the National Association for Biomedical Research.
The department is likely to require labs to report the number of animals they are using and categorize the type of pain and distress that they are under, Rich said Tuesday. Research institutions also could be required to consider alternatives to animals for research, such as computer simulations.
"If you're maintaining good standards of husbandry for animals and keeping good records you'll see little impact," said John McArdle, director of the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation, which brought the lawsuit.
Rich's group estimates that there are 23 million rodents being used for research in medical schools, pharmaceutical companies and other laboratories.
Research groups already were concerned about a USDA plan to tighten its classification system for pain and distress in animals.
The department is proposing to add a definition of distress to its regulations. Distress would be considered a state "in which an animal cannot escape from or adapt to the internal or external stressors or conditions it experiences, resulting in negative effects on its well-being." Critics of the definition say it is too vague.
©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed