DES MOINES, Iowa – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has placed 19 employees at a laboratory campus in central Iowa on paid leave after allegations that some used veterinary credentials to purchase low-cost medications for human use.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Iowa's former governor, called it "a very serious situation that requires immediate and decisive action."
He told The Associated Press by telephone Wednesday afternoon that there is no evidence the alleged activity interfered with the laboratories' work or results. But Vilsack said "we want to send a clear signal" that such actions won't be tolerated.
The names of the employees placed on leave weren't released. Officials said more could be involved.
Three USDA laboratories employ about 900 people on a sprawling campus in Ames. Testing for diseases such as mad cow and bird flu take place at the labs.
Vilsack said the USDA has commissioned two outside reviews of laboratory processes and management at the facilities. He said that results and possible corrective actions will be released once the investigation is finished.
I can't give you a time frame for the investigation. It's ongoing," he said. "It will be fair and complete."
Of the 19 employees placed on leave, all but two work for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. That agency's acting administrator, Kevin Shea, reaffirmed that the alleged activities haven't affected the laboratories' work.
"We want to stress that, while we are extremely concerned with the conduct demonstrated at Ames, there is no evidence any test results or other official laboratory activities were compromised in any way or caused any animal health risk," he said in a statement.
Officials refused to release other details, citing the ongoing investigation.