We Need the KITTEN Act: USDA’s Directive Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Robert Gordon

Toxoplasma gondiiis a parasite that is believed to effect 40 million people in the United States. The U.S. government has been researching it for more than 35 years. It is generally caused by eating undercooked meat that has been contaminated. Most people infected with it will never know that they are hosting a parasite. However, infected humans with weakened immune systems, such as infants, those with autoimmune disorders and the elderly may develop a serious and sometimes fatal sickness known as toxoplasmosis.

One unusual trait about toxoplasma gondiiis that the only known definitive hosts for purposes of sexual reproduction are felines (domestic cats and their relatives). Thus, scientific research often involves cats. In fact, beginning in 1982, the United States Department of Agriculture has infected hundreds of kittens each year with parasite-infected meat to harvest toxoplasma gondiieggs. Some of the cats were even fed dog and cat meat obtained from overseas markets prompting activists to dub the research “kitten cannibalism.” The kittens were then euthanized. Since the program began an estimated three thousand cats have been killed by the Department of Agriculture. Additionally, the program cost taxpayers approximately $22 million.

The federal government using beloved house pets as petri-dishes to grow parasite eggs and then killing them for over three decades reads as if it were taken from a dystopian science fiction novel. It shocks the conscience and warrants a Congressional response. Indeed, in the past two legislative sessions the United States House of Representatives has introduced the KITTEN Act of 2018 and the KITTEN Act of 2019 (also known asthe Kittens In Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act of 2019). The Senate also introduced a version of the Bill. towards the end of December 2018. Currently, the House’s version awaits action in the House Committee on Agriculture. The Bill’s summary notes: “This bill prohibits the Department of Agriculture from using cats in experiments that may cause pain or stress, unless the pain or stress is a result of a physical exam or training program.”

Notably, in early April 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture acknowledged the growing public awareness and disdain towards the agency’s practice. In response, the USDA issued a statement discontinuing the department’s toxoplasmosis research review. The agency notes that beginning in May 2018 it took “several actions” to review its research in this area after receiving feedback “from [its] customers and stakeholders.” As of September 2018, no additional cats had been infected with toxoplasma gondiiin a USDA agricultural research service facility. The agency concluded that cats who had already been infected with the parasite “should not be placed for adoption, as the risk to human health was too great.” But the 14 cats that were not infected should be made available and are in the process of being adopted by USDA employees pursuant to agency guidelines.

Significantly, the USDA’s directive shifts research from toxoplasmosis to “other food safety research of high priority for agriculture.” It also discontinues the use of cats as part of any Department of Agriculture research protocol, noting that past policies will not be reinstated. The agency’s directive is a welcome and necessary development that immediately ends a practice that harms and kills cats, but it falls short of the protections laid out in the KITTEN Act of 2019.

It is important that USDA’s directive does not discourage Congress from taking the necessary steps to protect cats from not only being subjected to toxoplasmosis research today, but also other USDA testing that causes pain or stress in the future. In the same way that the USDA had the flexibility to change its policies internally after public pressure, it could change its policies again in the future for other reasons. Without a law that outright prohibits cats from being used in USDA experiments there is always the possibility that they can once again be subjected to gruesome research practices by the Department of Agriculture. For these reasons, Congress should pass the KITTEN Act of 2019.

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