One of the world’s largest animal research firms has been sanctioned by the UK government after being accused of leaving more than a hundred rats inside an industrial crusher by mistake.
Scores of rodents died after being crushed to death in a rubbish compressor, according to a whistleblower, while others began self-harming after being given the wrong doses of chemicals during trials.
The Home Office has confirmed that an inquiry led to sanctions against Charles River Laboratories, operator of the Elphinstone Research Centre in East Lothian.
The multinational is one of the world’s largest suppliers of laboratory research services to pharmaceutical and biotech companies. It experiments on dogs, monkeys, rats and mice to make medicines, fertilisers and weedkillers.
The UK government began investigating the laboratory in Tranent after a whistleblower contacted animal welfare group, Peta, claiming that up to 54 live rats, including pregnant females, died in a crusher after a box containing hundreds of rodents was taken for destruction in error.
Animal welfare groups have condemned the incident and called on the Home Office to review Charles River Laboratories’ licence. The firm, which breeds its own animals for research, employs nearly 1,000 people in Tranent.
The Ferret has seen a copy of a letter, and a confidential affidavit from the whistleblower, which was submitted by Peta to the Home Office. The letter requested an inquiry and cited a series of incidents last year including one on 23 July when dozens of live rats were killed.
The charity told the Home Office: “Approximately 100 to 120 rats were delivered in standard transport boxes to Block N of the toxicology unit from the breeding centre in Margate. The boxes containing the rats were placed inside the airlock but, for reasons unknown, the rats were not then transferred into their home cages.
“Instead, the boxes containing the rats were later placed into the area where rubbish is collected by site services and were then moved via forklift to the rubbish compressor. They were placed into the compressor, which was then turned on.
“It was later brought to the attention of staff that boxes containing live animals had been placed inside the compressor and had been crushed.
“The boxes were subsequently removed, and it was discovered that approximately 50 to 54 rats, including pregnant females, had been crushed to death. The rats who had been crushed but had not died were euthanised.”
One staff member was dismissed following the incident, the whistleblower claimed, while another was suspended and later issued with a warning.
In another incident, it was alleged, rats being experimented on during an inhalation study were exposed to chloromethane, a chemical gas.
They suffered to the extent that they chewed their own limbs. Whistleblower
The whistleblower said: “During the study, self-mutilation behaviour was witnessed among the rats, but this did not necessarily result in euthanasia.
“However, five rats who were in the high-dose group were mistakenly forced to inhale a dose that was above the maximum limit. Consequently, they suffered to the extent that they chewed their own limbs; one female chewed a toe off one of her front feet. All five were subsequently euthanised.
“The study was not cancelled at the time of this incident, but the rats who had been exposed to too much chloromethane were removed from the dataset.”
In a third incident, rats were allegedly given the wrong test compound during a cancer study. “The rats in group three were given the compound meant for the rats in group four. It was reported to us that the technician responsible for dosing the rats had not read the label properly,” Peta said.
“Despite the mistake, the study continued, and standard operating procedures were changed so two people now have to check the barcode and concentration on the container match the printed dose request kept in the study folder.
“However, it is possible for a barcode scanner to be used so that animals can’t be dosed until the substance label has been registered via the scanner and computer, yet this safeguarding procedure has not, to the whistleblower’s knowledge, been put in place.”
The whistleblower also raised concerns about the level of animal care at weekends due to a skeleton staff system being employed by the firm. “They are allowed to go home once their tasks are complete,” Peta complained.
“However, it was pointed out to us that some staff members have a tendency to rush their jobs so they could go home sooner. This, therefore, raises concerns about the level of care taken in carrying out these duties.”
Dr Julia Baines, a senior science policy adviser at Peta UK, said: “Experimenting on animals is a dirty business, and Charles River Laboratories is one of the world’s top peddlers of misery and death, reportedly supplying one in every two animals used in experiments and therefore having a hand in half of all the pain, fear and distress endured by animals in laboratories around the globe.
“The company has previously been found to have violated animal welfare regulations in the US and now in Scotland. Animals are not inanimate pieces of laboratory equipment to be recklessly drugged, gassed, discarded or cut up in cruel experiments.
“Peta is calling for the Home Office to revoke Charles River Laboratories’ licence.”
The Home Office said: “We were made aware of the allegations on December 4, 2019, and our whistleblowing policy was followed accordingly. Inspectors have conducted their investigations. Where appropriate, sanctions have been applied.”
We are deeply committed to animal welfare and exceeding international standards. Charles River Laboratories
Charles River Laboratories said: “The survival rates for major diseases are at an all-time high due in part to the discovery of new medicines and therapies. The use of animal research models remains a vital component of these discoveries and is required by international regulatory agencies.
“We are deeply committed to animal welfare and exceeding international standards for the care of research models under our stewardship. We are committed to the 3Rs (replacement, reduction and refinement) and, when possible, our goal is to reduce the number of animals used.
“Additionally, we partner with customers to develop study designs that adopt the philosophy of the 3Rs, including the use of in vitro studies accepted by international authorities. As animal caregivers and scientific researchers, we are responsible to our clients and the public for the health and well-being of the animals in our care, and we strive to fulfil that responsibility on a daily basis.”
Eve Massie, of animal welfare charity OneKind, said: “Recent Home Office figures reveal 3.52 million procedures were carried out on animals in Britain in 2018. The Home Office regularly documents non-compliance in animal experiments and we’d welcome a statement on the course of action they plan to take to reduce these instances.
“Ultimately, OneKind seeks an end to the use of all animals in experiments through the process of the replacement, as the most effective of the principles known as the 3Rs. There should be increased investment in alternatives to animal testing, such as isolated cells and tissues, computer and mathematical models to predict the effects of chemicals and drugs and designing experiments for human volunteers.
“The breaches reported are serious in nature and we hope will lead to appropriate sanctions by the authorities and a thorough review of practices in the laboratory concerned.”