Santa Cruz Biotech fine too little, too late

Delcianna J. Winders, Academic Fellow, Animal Law & Policy Program, Harvard Law School

This piece originally appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently levied the largest fine in the history of the Animal Welfare Act, which will turn 50 this summer. In an unprecedented settlement agreement, Santa Cruz Biotechnology agreed to $3.5 million in penalties and to surrender its Animal Welfare Act license.

Animal protection groups have lauded the settlement, and, to be sure, getting this chronic animal welfare violator out of the business is huge. But it is also too little, too late.

While $3.5 million is nothing to scoff at, it is less than 1 percent of the more than $20 billion in potential fines Santa Cruz Biotech faced. And the Department of Agriculture made itself complicit in untold animal suffering when, year after year, it renewed the company’s Animal Welfare Act license despite knowing of chronic egregious violations.

As one of the world’s largest suppliers of antibodies — an industry valued at more than $80 billion — Santa Cruz Biotech is big business. The company has profited immensely from the suffering it has illegally inflicted on animals including routinely failing to provide minimally sufficient veterinary care to sick and injured animals.

For example, Santa Cruz Biotech failed to provide adequate veterinary care to a goat who had been bitten by a rattlesnake, had a “swollen jaw with a draining lesion and swollen chest,” and had lost nearly a quarter of her body weight. A goat whose leg was hanging loose as a result of a broken bone was similarly denied proper veterinary care for her painful condition.

Goat_SantaCruz_Large-tumor-under-jaw_creditMarcyRosendale (2)

 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection photograph of goat with a large tumor at Santa Cruz Biotechnology.

In a blatant display of bad faith, the company also kept nearly 1,000 goats — some in poor health — completely hidden from inspectors for nearly three years.

All told, the Department of Agriculture charged Santa Cruz Biotech with more than 50 Animal Welfare Act violations impacting hundreds — if not thousands — of animals, some of which persisted for months. Despite facing potential penalties in excess of $20 billion, the company managed to pay a fraction of 1 percent of that amount.

Steep discounting of Animal Welfare Act penalties, even for egregious, repeated, bad-faith violations like Santa Cruz Biotech’s, is common practice for the Department of Agriculture. An internal audit found penalties are reduced so greatly that violators treat them “as a cost of doing business” and have “little incentive to comply.” A recent internal report found that in cases involving animal deaths and other egregious violations, the Department of Agriculture reduced penalties by 86 percent on average.

Santa Cruz Biotech’s case also calls into question the agency’s practice of automatically approving Animal Welfare Act license renewal applications, even when the agency knows the applicant to be unlawfully causing harm to animals.

While the Department of Agriculture documented scores of horrific violations at Santa Cruz Biotech and filed numerous enforcement actions against the company, the agency simultaneously renewed its Animal Welfare Act license, year in and year out, allowing it to continue doing business as usual.

 In 2012, for example, the Department of Agriculture renewed Santa Cruz Biotech’s license in the very same month that it documented that the company was illegally failing to provide adequate veterinary care to at least seven animals.

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection photograph of goat with an injured eye at Santa Cruz Biotechnology.

Countless animals could have been spared untold suffering under Santa Cruz Biotech’s care if the agency had simply declined to automatically renew the company’s license.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Animal Welfare Act, the Department of Agriculture should finally ensure that animals used for research “are provided humane care and treatment” as Congress intended by abandoning the outrageous practices of severely discounting penalties and automatically renewing the licenses of chronic violators.

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