Monthly Archives: March 2016

World’s largest funder of medical research and the limitations of animal experimentation

Neural pathways in the brain. Source: Flickr/ NICHD

Neural pathways in the brain. Source: Flickr/ NICHD

In December 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released the NIH-Wide Strategic Plan, Fiscal Years 2016–2020: Turning Discovery Into Health. NIH is the world’s largest source of medical research funding. It consists of 27 institutes and centres (ICs), along with program offices, which collectively are referred to as ICOs. The Strategic Plan had been requested by Congress.

The NIH receives nearly thirty billion dollars a year from the US Government, and the total number of active grants in 2014 was more than 47,000.

Because a broad research portfolio is critical for carrying out NIH’s mission, the agency’s portfolio of grants and contracts covers the full range of biomedical, behavioral, and social sciences research, from basic to applied. (p. 5)

While NIH institutes and centres have their own strategic plans, the document is meant to lay out a common approach for priority setting across all NIH’s components.

The plan has four objectives:

  1. advance opportunities in biomedical research in fundamental science, treatment and cures, and health promotion and disease prevention;
  2. foster innovation by setting NIH priorities to enhance nimbleness, consider burden of disease and value of permanently eradicating a disease, and advance research opportunities presented by rare diseases;
  3. enhance scientific stewardship by recruiting and retaining an outstanding biomedical research workforce, enhancing workforce diversity and impact through partnerships, ensuring rigor and reproducibility, optimizing approaches to inform funding decisions, encouraging innovation, and engaging in proactive risk management practices; and
  4. excel as a federal science agency by managing for results by developing the “science of science,” balancing outputs with outcomes, conducting workforce analyses, continually reviewing peer review, evaluating steps to enhance rigor and reproducibility, reducing administrative burden, and tracking effectiveness of risk management in decision making.

What about animal experimentation?

In the following, I will focus on the part that animal research plays in this Strategic Plan.

Like Australia’s largest funding body of biomedical research, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the NIH funds experimentation on animals. Unlike the NHMRC, the NIH is explicit in acknowledging the limitations of such research AND dedicates significant funding to the development of more human-relevant research.

Discovery of potential therapeutic targets and candidate therapies are essential first steps in the development of new treatments and cures, but they are far from the only steps. The transition of scientific discoveries to human clinical trials has become increasingly costly and time consuming, with a great number of candidate therapies failing to cross what has been dubbed the “Valley of Death.” NIH-funded research will play an increasingly important role in identifying hurdles in this process, as well as generating approaches for accelerating the development and testing of potential treatments and cures. … Development of a new therapeutic is a long, costly, and risky endeavor. Currently, a novel drug, device, or other medical intervention takes about 14 years and $2 billion to develop, with a failure rate exceeding 95%. (p. 19)

So what are the human-relevant methods that are mentioned in the document and supported by grants?

Organs-on-chips and Tissue Chip for Drug Screening

Tissue Chips. Petri dish and animal models often fail to provide good ways to mimic disease or predict how drugs will work in humans, resulting in much wasted time and money while patients wait for therapies. To address that challenge, NIH, DARPA, and FDA are collaborating to develop 3D platforms engineered to support living human tissues and cells, called tissue chips or organs-on-chips. An integrated body-on-a-chip is the ultimate goal. (p. 38)

… the development of innovative ’tissue- and organ-on-a-chip’ systems is helping to bridge the gap between fundamental and translational science, providing new models of complex pathology for understanding basic mechanisms of disease. (p. 15)

Toxicology in the 21st Century (Tox21)

Tox21 researchers aim to develop better toxicity assessment methods to quickly and efficiently test whether certain chemical compounds have the potential to disrupt processes in the human body that may lead to negative health effects.

The “better” in the above quote surely refers to the unpredictability of animal testing.

New innovations such as molecule cross-coupling methods and human 3D organoid technologies

Despite the many exciting scientific opportunities for speeding the development of treatments and cures, significant challenges remain. Over the next 5 years, NIH will support research aimed at addressing a wide range of obstacles that lie at various points throughout the therapeutic development process. … To improve the efficiency, relevance, and accuracy of preclinical research, NIH will catalyze powerful innovations, including molecule cross-coupling methods that will open a vast new frontier of “chemical space” and human 3D organoid technologies that will be better than animal models. (p. 22)

Like the mouse running around and around in the wheel, animal experimentation is getting nowhere. Medical science has moved on, and it’s time to move away from outdated methods.

Despite acknowledging the proven usefulness and further potential of non-animal methods, the NIH continues to fund animal experimentation. But it’s a step in the right direction. It will waste fewer resources on unreliable methods using animals, and continue and strengthen investment in more reliable, often cheaper and faster, human-relevant research methods.

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Another German supermarket chain expands its animal welfare policies

Last month Aldi Nord released national and international animal welfare supply chain policies (in German and English language). Aldi Nord operates discount supermarkets in Germany and internationally, for example in Denmark, France, the Benelux countries, the Iberian Peninsula, and Poland. Both Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd also operate in the United States.

The Aldi supermarkets in Germany are owned by the Albrecht family, who split the business in 1966 into two separate legal entities: Aldi Süd (Aldi South) and Aldi Nord (Aldi North). Aldi Australia is owned by Aldi Süd.

I have written about Aldi Süd’s animal welfare supply chain policies previously on The Conversation and this blog. Now it’s Aldi Nord’s turn.

International Animal Welfare Purchasing Policy

ALDI Nord’s buyers are bound by this International Animal Welfare Purchasing Policy when carrying out their tendering and purchasing activities, and animal welfare matters are integrated into contracts.

The aim of the animal welfare commitment of ALDI Nord is the further development of the animal welfare standard when manufacturing our products in the defined scope of application, with the health and well-being of the animals taking top priority. We would like to raise the awareness of our customers and employees with regard to animal welfare matters through transparent information and a proactive dialogue.

The company’s commitments include, for example, the following:

  • the objective of increasing the animal welfare standard beyond the level required by law
  • to offer vegetarian and vegan substitute products as alternatives to animal products
  • certain products, such as real fur goods and angora wool, will not be sold
  • to continuously increase the proportion of animal welfare-friendly products in the product range (is this an acknowledgement that Aldi Nord sells products that are not animal welfare friendly?)
  • transparency along the supply chain and demanding the complete traceability of products, as stipulated by law. Beyond the level required by law, business partners must provide ALDI Nord with this information immediately upon request; for this purpose they must have established suitable information systems
  • simple and clear labelling of products
  • inspections and audits of business partners, including unannounced inspections of for example farms and slaughterhouses.

National Animal Welfare Purchasing Policy

The company’s national policy goes further than its international counterpart. This is most likely due to customer expectations in Germany and keeping up with competitors’ equivalent policies.

Aldi Nord has already implemented the following measures:

  • no meat and no down or feathers from force-feeding and live plucking are supplied or processed in Aldi Nord products
  • no products that involve mulesing in sheep
  • no real fur goods (the company signed the “Fur Free Declaration” in 2015)
  • no products made from angora wool, rabbit meat, quail or their eggs, lobster, eel, or shark.

Aldi Nord has a Fish Purchasing Policy for fish and seafood with a focus on sustainability throughout the entire supply chain for fish and seafood from wild-caught stocks and aquaculture. Only tuna with the “Dolphin Safe” label is sold, and no fish species that are categorised on international species protection lists as “endangered and protected” or “partially protected”.

The company uses the “V-Label” from the registered association Vegetarierbund Deutschland e.V. The label informs customers whether a product is vegetarian, without milk, without eggs or vegan.

In 2004, Aldi Nord was the first food retailing company in Germany to stop selling eggs from hens in battery cages. The company sells eggs only from barn, free-range and organic farming with certification for the alternative hen-rearing systems (KAT certification).

The company requires that all German suppliers of fresh meat are system partners in the QS inspection system (a quality assurance system). The regulations of this system go beyond legal requirements.

The recently released policy has the following, additional objectives:

  • an increase of organic products (with the assumption that organic products are associated with better animal welfare)
  • an expansion of the range of fish products that are certified as sustainable
  • expansion of the V-label products and an own brand for these products
  • a requirement that suppliers refrain from using avoidable small quantities of animal components in products
  • no use of eggs from hens reared in battery cages and small-group housing systems in 100% of the company’s processed egg products with a significant content of eggs.

In 2017, Aldi Nord will cease the sale of eggs from laying hens with trimmed beaks. From 2017, the company will not sell any pork from castrated animals and thus commit to the practice of boar fattening.

Further, Aldi Nord will formulate minimum requirements for products with animal-based raw materials, for example, in regard to husbandry, feeding, transportation, slaughtering and the use of antibiotics, and set down minimum requirements in supplier contracts.

Transparency in the supply chain

Aldi Nord commits to making its supply chains transparent and ensuring complete traceability of products. Products have a QR code and an Aldi Transparency Code (ATC); with the help of these detailed information can be obtained from the company’s website.

Our fresh chicken and turkey products are ‘5D-Ware’ (‘D’ for Germany). This guarantees that all production stages take place in Germany. The animals and their parents must hatch and grow up in Germany, be fed with feed from German feed mills and be slaughtered and processed in Germany.

We only procure fresh meat from Brazil from slaughterhouses that have joined the ‘Cattle Agreement’. We can thus rule out any association with the deforestation of the Amazon, where countless animal species live. Furthermore, social aspects such as the exclusion of forced labour, the respecting of the rights of indigenous people and the ban on land theft are taken into account.

Inspections and audits

The policy lists a range of requirements that suppliers have to follow. Also, the company – or a commissioned third party – makes unannounced on-the-spot visits on a random basis to inspect the required documentation and check compliance with all legal and industry standards as well as Aldi Nord requirements.

Such on-the-spot visits include the inspection of animal husbandry, feeding, housing (farm, slaughterhouse), transportation, stunning and other species-specific requirements.

Contribution to animal welfare

Aldi Nord commits to increasing animal welfare standards “in accordance with what is economically and scientifically feasible.” The company expects business partners to do the same. In collaboration with suppliers, the company pledges to work on animal welfare issues such as slaughtering pregnant cattle, dehorning cattle and docking pigs’ tails.

We will expand our active participation in relevant animal welfare initiatives and animal welfare networks to strengthen our commitment to animal welfare.

We will expand collaboration with suppliers to jointly achieve improvements in animal welfare, e.g. on the topic of slaughtering pregnant cattle, dehorning cattle and docking pigs’ tails.

Proactive dialogue

Aldi Nord promises to boost awareness of animal welfare among its customers and employees. It will do so by indicating its animal welfare commitment on products, its website, in retail outlets and advertising.

 

In Germany, the trend towards a plant-based diet is gaining in popularity resulting in increasing sales of vegetarian and vegan products. At the same time, customers interested in animal products are becoming more and more concerned about animal welfare and the sustainability of food production. The major supermarket chains in Germany have animal welfare supply chain policies and/or an increasing range of foods labelled as suitable for vegans and vegetarians (I wrote about Lidl’s position paper for the sustainable purchasing of animal products here).

Aldi Nord’s policies are available in English. Wouldn’t they make good reading material for Australia’s major supermarkets?