Animal rights activists have long raised concerns about some of the largest medical device companies, taking up minuscule stock holdings to gain access to shareholder meetings at a raft of medtech makers.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been acquiring stakes in various companies, either through donations or by taking an active interest in firms it deems guilty of cruelty to animals. Even with meager holdings, the group is considered a partial owner entitled to submit proposals during annual meetings.
So far the group has targeted Boston Scientific (NYSE:BSX), Medtronic (NYSE:MDT), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), Abbott Labs (NYSE:ABT), GE Healthcare (NYSE:GE) and several other companies that PETA says need to step up to protect animals used in clinical testing.
PETA has a reputation for being extreme in its advocacy for animal welfare, but the group is taking a more subtle approach in asking medical device makers to change their ways. Using its shareholder privileges, PETA is hoping to draw attention to its concerns by asking companies to open up about their use of animals, make efforts to switch to scientifically validated non-animal methods when feasible and stop using live animals in presentations or training events for sales reps.
PETA vs. Boston Scientific
PETA most recently targeted Boston Scientific, saying that the Natick, Mass.-based company has ties to laboratories with a history of mistreating animals, among them Michigan-based MPI Research and the Massachusetts-based Charles River Laboratories. PETA used its BSX shares to wedge a proposal into the company’s May 6, 2014, shareholder meeting, urging leadership to adopt more non-animal testing methods and to improve conditions for animals used in experiments.
MPI and Charles River have both been found guilty of several animal welfare violations in the past, according to PETA.
"Multiple animals at MPI – including 3 primates, a dog, and a pig – had to be euthanized after mishandling resulted in traumatic injuries," according to the shareholder proposal filed this month in Boston Scientific’s regulatory filings. "Further, MPI personnel failed to conduct adequate searches for alternatives to painful surgical procedures and failed to secure veterinary approval for animal experiments, as required by law."
Charles River has made headlines in the past for animal injuries, including a primate that was scalded to death after her cage was run through a high-temperature washer while she was still inside. PETA further cited instances in which pigs’ large sores were left untreated, a dog was mistakenly left implanted with surgical gauze and 32 primates "baked to death" due to a heating system failure.
"Our Company’s use of external contract laboratories with numerous violations of federal animal welfare laws shows the need for greater accountability in animal use and a strategy to improve the living conditions of animals used," PETA said.
The animal rights group called on Boston Scientific to generate annual reports on its use of animals and efforts to find alternatives when possible.
The board of directors said in its rebuttal that such a report would be "unnecessary" given the company’s "3Rs" initiative in animal testing, which involves efforts to replace animals with other methods, reduce the number of animals when feasible and refine procedures to minimize impacts to animals. Boston Scientific’s principles also call for the company to work only with accredited organizations that pass animal welfare standards provided by 3rd parties.
"Our principles for our use, care and treatment of laboratory animals reflect our commitment to the humane care and treatment of laboratory animals, the responsible use of animals in medical research and the use of alternatives to animal testing whenever such methods are feasible, scientifically valid and appropriate," Boston Scientific said. "Accordingly, our board of directors believes that an additional annual report to stockholders as requested by the proponent is unnecessary, burdensome and not in the best interests of the company or its stockholders."
The proposal was soundly defeated, winning over only 3.8% of shareholders, or about 40.9 million votes in favor, about 786.8 million against and 240.1 million abstaining.
"Shareholders have a right to know that their company is choosing to do business with laboratories that break animals’ bones, scald and bake them to death, and leave animals to suffer and die from untreated illness and infections," PETA regulatory testing division director Jessica Sandler said in prepared remarks. "Boston Scientific needs to go beyond platitudes about animal welfare and take concrete action to address these important scientific and ethical concerns."
"Boston Scientific takes very seriously our ethical and scientific obligation to ensure the humane use, care and treatment of laboratory animals," Boston Scientific spokeswoman Denise Kaigler told MassDevice.com today. "Our principles in this regard reflect our commitment to the responsible use of animals in medical research and the use of alternatives to animal testing whenever such methods are feasible, scientifically valid and appropriate."
PETA vs. Medtronic
Medtronic has a long history with PETA, but none of the group’s proposals made it onto the books for a shareholders’ meeting thanks to talks with company leadership.
PETA initially took on Medtronic in 2005, asking the company to adopt its "Give the Animals 5" initiative to replace 5 "crude and cruel" animal experiments with scientifically validated non-animal methods. PETA withdrew its shareholder resolution "based on subsequent discussions between Medtronic executives and PETA’s science advisers," according to a PETA statement.
PETA returned to Medtronic in 2008, saying that "those meetings did not produce tangible results for animals." The group filed another resolution calling on Medtronic to prohibit outsourcing of animal testing to countries, such as China, that have "lax animal welfare laws." PETA again withdrew its resolution after meetings with the company.
The animal rights activists targeted Medtronic a 3rd time in 2010 after receiving reports that Medtronic’s sales reps were using live animals in presentations and training, a practice that PETA said had been banned by rival device makers.
Medtronic said that it had taken action to eliminate the use of live animals in training wherever possible and even conducted a feasibility study to evaluate what it would mean to ban animal use altogether. The company concluded that live animal training was necessary for the time being but that Medtronic would continue searching for alternatives.
PETA once again withdrew its 2010 resolution after having "a productive dialog" with Medtronic’s leadership, who said that they had already taken steps akin to those proposed.
Medtronic maintains that live-animal training is necessary for ensuring the safety and efficacy of its products and the proper training of its sales consultants.
"As a manufacturer of medical devices, Medtronic is required to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of its products to regulatory authorities worldwide," the company told MassDevice.com today. "In many cases, these authorities prescribe animal research as the only means for valid demonstration. When animals are required for research or training purposes, Medtronic is focused on using the smallest number of animals possible and carefully designing studies to avoid unnecessary testing."
PETA vs. Johnson & Johnson
When PETA brought its GTA5 initiatives to J&J in 2005, the company petitioned the SEC for approval to keep the measure off the books entirely. The SEC shot down the censure, but PETA ultimately withdrew the resolution after taking meetings with J&J leadership, who agreed to work with the organization to reduce animal use, according to a PETA statement.
Those talks broke down over J&J’s use of live animals in training new sales reps, PETA said. The group in 2011 pushed a resolution to reduce animal use whenever possible and to eliminate the use of live animals in sales trainings in particular. J&J countered that it already had written guidelines to curb animal use and ensure that animals are treated humanely, but PETA countered that the company wasn’t acting in accordance with its own guidelines. The SEC ultimately agreed that the PETA proposal was not made redundant by J&J’s existing guidelines, and the resolution made it into the books, garnering about 4.7% of the shareholder vote.
PETA filed a similar resolution in 2012 over J&J’s use of live animals in training, garnering 4.4% of the vote that year.
"We had a good period of regular and constructive dialogue with PETA in the recent past that focused on making progress on areas of common ground," J&J told MassDevice.com today. "Our businesses have clear, well-developed guidelines and policies mandating greater ethical and humane treatment of the animals we use in product development. We continue to be committed to developing and using alternative methods of testing."
The company added that it reviews each shareholder proposal very carefully and that it challenges those that it believes "seek to delve into the company’s ordinary business of operations or have been substantially implemented."
"Our businesses have clear, well-developed guidelines and policies mandating greater ethical and humane treatment of the animals we use in product development," J&J told us. "We continue to be committed to developing and using alternative methods of testing."
PETA vs. Abbott Labs
PETA’s also has a long history with Abbott, having similarly pushed the GTA5 campaign at shareholder meetings as far back as 2004. The measure made it onto the books but won only 2.5% of Abbott shareholders’ votes.
Saying that it had uncovered "horrors" at Covance, a contract testing laboratory used by Abbott, PETA returned in 2006. The animal welfare group urged Abbott to extend its animal welfare policies to include standards for housing and socialization at in-house facilities as well as contract labs. The SEC allowed Abbott to keep the proposal off of the books, ruling that it was too similar to the previous "Give the Animals 5" measure.
The group was back again in 2011 with a proposal to enhance transparency and phase out animal testing. That resolution also failed to land in the books after the SEC ruled that another animal rights group had already filed a similar proposal.
Undeterred, PETA returned in 2012 with a measure that would require Abbott’s board of directors to publish annual reports to shareholders on its treatment of lab animals and efforts to promote non-animal alternatives, saying that Abbott’s animal testing metrics and reporting were nowhere near as thorough as those relating to energy, combustion, or workplace injuries.
"Despite touting the virtues of reducing animal use, our company’s published animal welfare policy provides no specifics such as trends in animal use or information on the success/failure of animal reduction and replacement measures," the shareholder proposal stated. "Other international companies, such as Novo Nordisk, disclose animal use numbers and publicize their efforts to incorporate replacement methods."
Abbott shareholders defeated the 2012 animal use transparency measure with 88.1 million shares against and 58.5 million shares in favor. The board of directors said at the time that the company already adhered to proper scientific, regulatory and ethical standards in its animal testing and performed detailed disclosures of its philosophy.
"Abbott seeks to minimize the use of animal testing. Abbott utilizes alternatives to animal testing wherever feasible and permitted by law," according to the board of directors’ response to the 2012 shareholder proposal. "However, Abbott has both legal and ethical obligations to ensure the safety and efficacy of its medicines and medical products, and as a result, animal testing will continue to be a necessary component of Abbott’s research program."
The board recommended that shareholders vote against the measure, saying that it would unnecessarily duplicate existing initiatives.
Abbott representatives pointed out that the company had significantly reduced its use of animals in testing since spinning out its its pharmaceuticals arm into an independent company last year. The company added that it had also invested resources in ensuring that its remaining laboratory animal research programs "meet or exceed" U.S. and European standards.
"While animal testing is critically important to advancing health care research, Abbott consistently works to minimize the number and frequency of animal tests required and to develop new testing methods and programs to minimize the need for animal models," according to a company statement. "Abbott’s Corporate Animal Welfare Committee, composed of animal welfare experts from across the company, guides our position and global policies on animal use. Abbott’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee serves as a review board that independently evaluates and approves our internal scientific protocols before animal use can begin."
PETA’s 2012 measure was defeated with about 887.1 million shares against and 58.5 shares in favor, but garnered nearly 6.2% of the shareholder vote, meaning the organization could return in 2013. No animal welfare resolutions appeared in Abbott’s 2013 filings.
PETA vs. General Electric
PETA began pushing its GTA5 initiative on GE in 2004, beating the company’s efforts to keep the resolution off the books and ultimately garnering nearly 3.9% of the shareholder vote. When the animal welfare group circled back the next year, GE’s leadership made stronger efforts to block the shareholder proposal, arguing that PETA’s recommendations dealt with company matters that aren’t subject to stockholder oversight. The SEC blocked that effort that PETA’s proposal again made it into the books, landing 3.3% of the vote that year.
PETA withdrew a 2006 resolution after having productive talks with GE leadership.
"PETA and GE worked together to reduce the company’s use of animals and to improve environmental enrichment measures for the animals used," according to a PETA statement. "During this period, GE made great strides in instituting environmental enrichment programs with its contractors worldwide."
That relationship broke down after GE acquired U.K. drug-maker Amersham, and PETA issued a new resolution in 2010 to establish regular reporting of the company’s use of animals in testing. The SEC allowed GE to keep that resolution off the books after the company argued that PETA had not provided sufficient proof of its ownership of company stock, PETA said.
The animal rights activists were back in 2011, asking again for annual reports on the use of animals in medical testing, this time winning over the SEC against GE’s claims that the groups proposals were "vague and indefinite." The resolution hit the books and won nearly 10% of the vote, after which "GE agreed to resume discussions with PETA."
"We have made … our position on working with animals clear when approached by legitimate campaigning organizations, and we are always willing to listen, provide information transparently and engage with those campaigning lawfully on animal welfare issues," GE Healthcare chief communications officer Jeff DeMarrais told MassDevice.com today. "It should be noted that GE Healthcare’s animal welfare standards exceed statutory requirements, and absolute numbers of animals used are very small in comparison with the pharmaceutical industry."
GE has has also developed product and technologies that may help reduce reliance on animals in testing, including gene chip micro-arrays and cell-based assays.
"Ultimately, innovations from GE Healthcare could lead to better, safer, more effective and accurate drug development technologies that also enable our customers to reduce their reliance on animal work," DeMarrais said. "GE is committed to developing alternative non-animal studies wherever possible and we subscribe to the 3 Rs’ advocating reduction, refinement and replacement of animal work."