Monthly Archives: May 2015

Obesity “epidemic”, supermarkets and veg*an choices

Source: Flickr/ carnagenyc

Source: Flickr/ carnagenyc

Today, The Age published an article on the health costs of obesity, titled “Obesity epidemic weighs down hospitals”. It’s nothing new; we’ve been reading or hearing about this public health problem for some time.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 63% of adults are overweight or obese, as are 25% of children. People living in outer regional or remote areas are 15% more likely to be overweight or obese than people living in major cities. A high BMI is the second highest contributor to the burden of disease, after dietary risks. Smoking is the third highest.

This article in The Age is different in that it describes how the obesity “epidemic” affects hospital facilities and staff of a particular hospital. It’s the hospital in Bendigo, a city approx. 150 km northwest of Melbourne:

  • Bendigo Health found that in the past year the number of patients who are heavier than 200 kg has climbed steadily and is expected to continue to increase. A new hospital, to be opened next year, reflects this.
  • “Four square metres larger than standard, each $266,000 bariatric room in the new hospital will be equipped with a bigger, reinforced bed, a larger toilet, shower, wheelchair and trolley, and will be fitted with an electronically operated ceiling track hoist capable of moving patients weighing up to 300 kilograms. Equipment costs alone are $30,000 – more than three times that of a standard room.”
  • “In the current facility, three beds in a four bed bay often have to be shut to accommodate one heavy patient. Their length of stay is on average four days longer. A shortage of larger, specialised equipment is also an issue.”
  • “Sometimes we have patients who take up to four staff just to try and roll them or get them out of bed.”

The hospital has appointed a full-time employee to oversee “safe manual handling” of obese patients due to an increase in staff injuries.

Ambulances and community care are also affected.

“Specialised ambulances are needed to transport patients home. Once there they require a bariatric bed and mattress, and regular visits from nursing staff and other therapists.”

“Community care for the average obese patient costs more than $43,000 a year, compared to around $7,500 for a non-obese patient.”

There is no quick fix, but as a society we have to make healthy food choices the easy and affordable food choices. This will involve a range of strategies, and one of these is making vegetarian and vegan (veg*an) options more mainstream.

Source: Flickr/ wsilver

Source: Flickr/ wsilver

While it’s possible to be vegan and obese, overall veg*ans are more likely to be of healthy weight. A veg*an diet is also healthier for the planet. Further, given the horrific conditions animals are forced to endure in factory farming, a veg*an diet is the ethical choice. So there are three good reasons to stay away from meat and other animal products.

In my part of the world, veg*an restaurants and shops seem to mushroom. I love it. But I live in inner suburban Melbourne, and it’s a different picture the further one moves away from the big cities.

But veg*an is becoming mainstream in Germany (I’m planning another blog post on this topic). So much so, that an article in the economics section of a major German newspaper claims that vegan is the trend of the current decade. In Germany, the vegan supermarket chain Veganz has recently launched its own home brand. Veganz products are also sold in “regular” supermarket chains.

So, have Australian supermarkets caught on? Earlier this month I contacted four major supermarket chains in Australia – Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Metcash – asking them two questions:

Over the last 12 months, have you launched any new products with the label “vegetarian” or “vegan”? If so, could you please list these products.

Over the next 12 months, do you expect demand for vegetarian and vegan products to rise, stay the same, or decrease? If you expect demand for such products to increase, what type of products do you expect to be in greater demand? For example, meat replacement products, vegan cheeses, vegan baked goods, vegan beauty and cleaning products, vegan wine.

Coles, Woolworths and Aldi responded. Woolworths wrote they are “unable to advise whether we expect a demand, increase or decrease in vegetarian and vegan products as new, improved and more popular products are launched; our product range must change in-line with demand.” Coles’ response was similar: “… at this stage it is hard to say whether the range will increase, decrease or stay the same. The product range we sell is heavily based on what our customers purchase. We aim to offer customers a wide variety of quality products at competitive prices, and as mentioned above, our range is constantly changing.” Aldi’s response was not much different. It too could not tell me whether the company plans to increase its veg*an range.

It will be up to consumer demand.

Today we have broccoli ... Source: Flickr/ premier-photo.com

Source: Flickr/ premier-photo.com

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Australia failing to protect non-human primates in research

A re-post of a piece I wrote for the Conversation:

The NHMRC code on animal use requires researchers to minimise harm, pain and distress but doesn’t provide guidance on how to do it. International Fund for Animal Welfare Animal Rescue Blog/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The NHMRC code on animal use requires researchers to minimise harm, pain and distress but doesn’t provide guidance on how to do it. International Fund for Animal Welfare Animal Rescue Blog/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Monika Merkes, La Trobe University

In late April, a US judge granted lawyers acting for two chimpanzees used in research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Hercules and Leo, a hearing about their unlawful imprisonment. The case will test legal personhood for the animals. But in Australia, non-human primates may be about to see their circumstances change for the worse because of an impending research ethics policy change.

Public consultation on the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) draft Principles and guidelines for the care and use of non-human primates for scientific purposes will close tomorrow (Friday May 8). The document, which is an update of a 2003 policy and complements the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes, will remove some existing safeguards for ethical use of these animals in research.

In Australia, regulatory responsibility for animal welfare, including the care and use of non‐human primates in research and teaching, rests with state and territory governments. While the NHMRC’s code is not legally binding, it requires researchers it funds to follow its policy on animal welfare.

The new draft guidelines

The code requires researchers to minimise harm, pain and distress to the animals they use. It states all teaching and research activities “must balance whether the potential effects on the wellbeing of the animals involved is justified by the potential benefits”. But it doesn’t provide guidance on how to do this, so it’s up to researchers and local animal ethics committees to determine what procedures are justified.

Great apes (gorilla, orang‐utan, chimpanzee and bonobo) and other non-human primates are treated differently by the new draft. The use of great apes in research is permitted only when it “will not have any appreciable negative impact on the animals involved, e.g. observational studies, activities already being undertaken for management or veterinary purposes” or when it “will potentially benefit the individual animal and/or their species”. The former was not included in previous guidelines, so this is a step forward.

But, to my knowledge, great apes have not been used in Australian research for a long time. While this new clause will protect great apes from being used in NHMRC-funded research, it is unlikely to impact current research practice.

Other non-human primates used for research (macaques, marmosets and baboons) are not so lucky. The NHMRC has already acknowledged that non-human primates have the capacity to suffer more than other research animals because of their higher cognitive abilities and well-developed social structures. In spite of this, many of its purported protections are ambiguous and ultimately meaningless.

Weak protections

The NHMRC wants feedback on proposed changes to requirements
that its animal welfare committee be notified when non-human primates are to be housed for periods longer than six weeks without access to an outside enclosure, or imported.

The reason for the latter is that importing animals is subject to Commonwealth regulation. But since the draft guidelines still require notification of export of non-human primates, there is no good reason why import should not be treated in the same way. The public has an interest to know, and this information would be difficult, if not impossible, to collect from animal ethics committees.

Removing the requirement on housing weakens animal protection because it shifts power from the NHMRC’s animal welfare committee to local animal ethics committees. Not requiring local committees to justify their decisions to an external body could enable conditions that are not in the animals’ interest.

Marmosets and other non-human primates are not as well protected as the great apes, despite also having high cognitive abilities. Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Central overview checks potential abuse through oversight as well as overcoming lack of knowledge and expertise among small local animal ethics committees. Self-regulation is not sufficient to protect animals who cannot speak for themselves; we need more transparency to ensure this is happening, not less.

Indeed, transparency is an important issue not addressed by the NHMRC code or draft guidelines. In Australia, there is no publicly available information about the use of non-human primates – as well as other animals – in research and teaching. Not only does this mean there is no way of knowing research isn’t duplicated, it also stops the public finding out details of research that is funded through their taxes.

Australia is not unique in this regard but there is a precedent for transparency. A European Union directive effective since 2013 mandates the publication of a non-technical summary of all animal research projects after any trade secrets or information that could identify researchers or institutions is redacted. If European researchers can provide this information, why can’t researchers in Australia?

Some serious problems

There are much bigger problems here, too. The umbrella group for councils that fund research in the United Kingdom recently ended a two-year investigation that found an excess of animal lives were being wasted on poorly designed projects that produced meaningless results. Most likely the situation is similar in Australia but the lack of transparency means we have no way to find this out.

There are still outstanding questions about whether there are actual benefits in using animals for biomedical research. Indeed, the authors of a recent article in the BMJ have suggested that this kind of work may be diverting funds from research that is more relevant.

What’s more, we have valid research methods that replace non-human primates in research of debatable quality.

But all we have in Australia are these new draft guidelines that will more likely than not move us backwards. Apart from the problems already discussed, they lack guidance on the fate of research animals after their use, by leaving these decisions to animal ethics committees.

We don’t know where these animals go after research projects are completed, or whether they’re killed because there is no appropriate place for them to live. Surely, since the NHMRC funds primate breeding facilities, funding a sanctuary for them to spend the rest of their days after they have been used in research for human benefit is its responsibility, too.

While we erode the rights of non-human primates in Australia, Hercules and Leo will have their day in court. Even if they don’t achieve legal personhood, their case will be a step towards ending experimenting on animals that are so much like us.

The Conversation

Monika Merkes is Honorary Associate, Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

NHMRC public consultation on the care and use of non-human primates for scientific purposes

Pondering primate. Source: Flickr/ jjjj56cp

Pondering primate. Source: Flickr/ jjjj56cp

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia is consulting the public on new guidelines for the care and use of non-human primates for scientific purposes. The closing date for submissions is Friday, 8 May 2015, 5:00pm.

I have just submitted my comments. Here is my submission:

Re: Public consultation on the draft principles and guidelines for the care and use of non-human primates for scientific purposes

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the above document.

First of all, I wish to state that I am opposed to the use of animals in teaching and research on ethical and scientific grounds.

However, I wish to make the following comments in response to the draft document:

Pages 2 – 3. The NHMRC is particularly interested in feedback on proposed changes to notification requirements to its Animal Welfare Committee (AWC). The requirements that would be removed are:

  • Exemption from the AWC regarding housing of non‐human primates for periods longer than six weeks without access to an outside enclosure.
  • Notification to the AWC of the importation of non‐human primates which is subject to Commonwealth regulation.
  • Inspection by the AWC of facilities where non‐human primates will be housed and used.

I am against the removal of these requirements, because they weaken the existing protections and extend self-regulation. Self-regulation is not sufficient to protect the animals effectively, and a central overview is important. It is crucial that all use of primates is reported to the NHMRC and that a database is established to monitor all aspects of their use.

In addition, I encourage you to establish a national data base for all animal research to inform the public and to insure research is not duplicated. Such a database is mandated in the European Union. The EU requires the publication of nontechnical summaries of all animal research projects minus any trade secrets or information that could identify researchers or institutions. Researchers in the EU provide this information, and Australia should follow their lead.

The draft document notes that “Great apes must not be imported from overseas”, yet it is proposed to even drop the requirement to notify the AWC of the importation of other non‐human primates. If we have breeding facilities here in Australia, why import non-human primates thereby subjecting them to considerable stress during transport? As stated above, ideally we should ban the use of all non-human primates for scientific purposes, but if this does not occur, then at least stress and suffering should be minimised.

Points 2 and 5

Great apes and other non-human primates are treated differently by the new draft guidelines, suggesting that “the use of great apes (gorilla, orang‐utan, chimpanzee and bonobo) raises even greater ethical concerns than that of other non‐human primates”. The use of great apes for scientific purposes is only permitted when it “will not have any appreciable negative impact on the animals involved” or when it “will potentially benefit the individual animal and/or their species”. This conveys stronger protection than the previous guidelines issued in 2003, and I commend this change.

Considering there is little difference between great apes and other primates in their capacity to suffer, their cognitive abilities and well-developed social structures, the protections granted to great apes should be extended to all other primates.

Many of the purported protections are ambiguous and ultimately meaningless. For example:

  • Point 15. “The capacity for the particular species of non-human primate involved to experience pain and distress must be taken into account when making decisions about the possible impact of procedures or conditions on the wellbeing of an individual non-human primate”. — “Taking into account” is unspecific and can mean anything.
  • Point 16. “When non-human primates are supplied to a project approved by an institutional AEC, the animals must be obtained from an established Australian breeding colony unless another source is approved by the AEC”. — It would be more honest to say that the AEC can approve any type of sourcing of non-human primates.
  • Point 25 (i).“Australian‐bred non‐human primates must not be exported unless … for a specific purpose. Examples of specific purposes would be maintenance of genetic diversity or provision of overseas researchers with a model of a primate disease”. — “A specific purpose” can be found easily.

Point 28. The draft document notes that the 3Rs need to be applied at all stages. In regard to the first R (i.e. Replacement) I’d like to point out that many countries have dedicated research centres for the development and validation of non-animal research methods. These centres receive government support and funding. This is not the case in Australia. It would be appropriate for the NHMRC to demonstrate a similar commitment.

In summary, in the absence of a ban on the use of all non-human primates for scientific purposes, I propose the following:

  • Extend the protections granted to great apes to other non-human primates.
  • Start a national database for all animal research. This could follow the EU example.
  • Many countries have government-supported dedicated research centres for the development and validation of non-animal research methods. Australia needs to catch up and contribute to the development of effective and ethical research methods that do not involve the use of animals. The NHMRC is the appropriate body to advance and support this.
  • At present, Australia does not have a facility for “retired” primates. We need a sanctuary for non-human primates in Australia, and the NHMRC should fund such a sanctuary.


If you feel strongly about the protection of non-human primates used in research and teaching, I encourage you to make a submission. It doesn’t have to be a long document. Feel free to “borrow” from my submission. Further, Humane Research Australia has provided a few pointers that you can use.

Let’s do what we can to improve the lives of animals unfortunate enough to end up in a research institute.