USDA will no longer use kittens, cats as subjects in controversial food-safety testing

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Tuesday announced it will no longer use cats as test subjects in its food safety research.

Previously, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) laboratory in Maryland used felines when conducting research on a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite can cause toxoplasmosis, a dangerous disease the USDA said is “considered to be a leading cause of death from foodborne illness in the United States.” This is especially true for those with weakened immune systems. That said, the federal agency said its research has helped to “cut the prevalence of T. gondii by as much as 50 percent in the United States.”

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Both kittens and cats would be used in the testing process; the animals were fed “parasite-infected raw meat,” according to the “Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act of 2019,” a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress in March. The researchers would then wait for the parasite to complete its life cycle and lay eggs. They felines would later be euthanized, resulting in the deaths of thousands of cats since the early 1980s, reports CBS News.

The USDA in its statement said researchers in recent years have worked to “minimize reliance on cats,” which are the “only hosts in which T. gondii can complete its life cycle and produce oocysts (eggs).”

But the decision to eliminate cats from its testing process entirely came after the federal agency reportedly received pressure from lawmakers to do so.

“Use of cats as part of any research protocol in any laboratory in ARS has been discontinued and will not be reinstated,” the USDA said, adding no cats have been infected with the parasite since September 2018.

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“Food safety research in ARS is of paramount importance for agriculture and the public we serve. We are continually assessing our research and priorities and aligning our resources to the problems of [the] highest national priority. We are excited for the next chapter of work for these scientists and this laboratory,” Chavonda Jacobs-Young, an ARS administrator, said in a statement.

The 14 remaining cats at the facility,  which were never infected with the T. gondii parasite, according to the USDA, are slated to be adopted by USDA employees.