There has been pushback against allegations of animal abuse at USDA’s Nebraska research center. But the issue isn’t about parsing details, it’s about the black eye industry is sporting.

A recent column criticizing the outcomes of some of the research in livestock production and breeding that allegedly took place at USDA’s Meat Animal Research in Clay Center, Neb., facility prompted a reply from a well-placed source: The former director of the center, Dr. Mohammad Koohmaraie.

Dr. Koohmaraie wrote, “Many of us were surprised to see you believe the New York Times article and double down without any investigation (see, “A scandal in Nebraska”). The Times is a very biased report, speaking to past disgruntled employees. If the vet quoted in the article was all that concerned about animal well-being, why did he observe [the incidents] for so long and did nothing about it?”

That is a legitimate question, especially given Dr. Koohmaraie’s credentials, and I’ll concede that even the august source of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” isn’t above sensationalizing a story with an emphasis on lurid details that obscure its objectivity.

However, it’s hard to believe that the New York Times got it all wrong in reporting on several specific experiments in which animals were deliberately injured and subjected to death by exposure, all in the service of “productivity.”

Or that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack was merely overreacting when he ordered an independent review of the department’s operations at the center in the wake of the allegations of abuse.

Or that ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young was just providing window dressing when she appointed an ombudsman for animal welfare at the center, who is tasked with responding to employees there if they have concerns about animal welfare.

Or that the veterinarian who broke the story, former veteran USDA employee (now retired), Dr. James Keen, falsified what he told the newspaper about projects with which he was personally involved over the years. With all due respect, it’s not a rebuttal of charges, legally or otherwise, to argue that if a whistleblower didn’t take action to deal with the issues being raised, then he or she has no credibility.

The bottom line is this: Were things as bad as some of the reporting made them seem? Probably not. But even a whiff of the incidents that were allegedly occurring at the center is bad news for the industry. Very bad news, because it plays right into the hands of the activists whose mission in life is demonizing the people involved in animal agriculture.

I can certainly agree that the media tends to be overwrought in covering animal-handling stories, but this wasn’t a case of some wacko with a video camera doctoring underground footage of a packing plant or growout barn to make it seem like somebody is abusing an animal. This was a USDA veterinarian detailing experiments that were questionable at best.

Yes, the industry needs to advance livestock productivity, but not by leaving animals unattended to die of exposure, or by pushing genetics to the limit to the detriment of the breeding animals.

Plus, when you have both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress expressing concerns about the allegations, that’s a more revealing signal that the standard response that usually accompanies such stories: “We will wait to comment until the investigation is complete.”

To be fair, the University of Nebraska official who works with the center, Archie Clutter, PhD., dean of the university’s Agricultural Research Division and director of the University of Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station, took issue with the Times story. But let’s be honest here. I’ve spent too many years as a journalist not to recognize a carefully worded non-denial “denial” when I see one.

“The allegations in that article are not consistent with our experiences of the care of animals at the center,” Clutter told Omaha.com.

I'm not questioning his integrity, but that’s what you say when lawyers are seated next to you. The first rule of public relations is that if you are truly innocent of the charges, if the allegations some media source is making are untrue, then you get out in front of the story and deny it in no uncertain terms and with no qualifications whatsoever.

Dr. Clutter could have said, “These allegations are false. The incidents never happened. Period.”

Instead, his statement reads like it came straight out of the university’s legal department, which suggests that there is at least some truth to the allegations, and the people in charge need to be cautious about saying anything that might create further legal jeopardy.

An objective analysis

But the most important point I was trying to make in the column involves the reaction of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I included comments from ASPCA’s statement not because I’m buying every word of their over-the-top characterization of the alleged incidents, but because the statement the group released is exactly how anti-industry advocates try to spin stories about livestock production and meatpacking.

Only their sources are typically fellow travelers in the “movement” to discredit the industry and promote a vegetarian agenda — not a professional veterinarian who was on the ground, inside the center and an eyewitness to the incidents in question.

Obviously, there are two sides to every story, but a firsthand report of projects aimed at pushing the limits of livestock productivity aren’t occurring in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of decades of intensive research and experimentation in both the private and public sectors that have been aimed at furthering productivity, often, unfortunately, without a correspondingly robust emphasis on animal well-being.

There is a line that must be drawn between research that produces beneficial results in terms of yield and efficiency, and projects that are conducted without the necessary regard for the health and welfare of the livestock involved.

If even some of the charges levied against the manner in which certain projects at Clay Center were conducted are accurate, I’m inclined to believe that the proverbial line was crossed.

It is true that a huge volume of positive research has been conducted over the years at USDA’s research center. That’s not up for debate.

But no matter how much reputable work was done in the areas of food safety and meat quality, the scales don’t balance if there are even a handful of other projects that led to unnecessary suffering and death for the animals involved.

Because that is how activists characterize the industry’s very existence, and it’s nothing short of tragic when well-meaning scientists and researchers provide them with ammunition they use to attack the industry.

I would welcome the results of an investigation that debunked every word of the New York Times story. Unfortunately, even in the unlikely event that were to occur, the damage has already been done. □

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.