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Is Animal Testing Legal In The US?

Many countries across the world are introducing laws and regulations to ban the use of cosmetic testing on animals – an archaic and unnecessary practice. For example, the EU has had a total ban in effect since 2009, and New Zealand has had a ban since 2015.

The treatment of animals is clearly a priority for some countries, but is animal testing legal in the US? As of 2022, animal testing is legal in the US, including for cosmetics. Several regulations are in place to minimize harm to laboratory animals, but there is minimal federal oversight to ensure compliance. Eight states, including California, have introduced state-wide bans.

While that’s the simple answer, there is some nuance. Read on to learn more about where, when, and how animal testing is legal in America. 

The Animal Welfare Act 1966 (AWA) is the primary piece of legislation regulating when animal testing is legal at the federal level in the USA. Over 15 million animals are tested on every year under the purview of this legislation.

animal welfare act 1966 original text screenshot
A Screenshot of the Original Title of the Animal Welfare Act 1966

The AWA has been amended multiple times over the years. As a result of changes made by the US Congress in 2002, laboratory rats, mice, lizards, fish, and birds are excluded from the law’s purview. Animal testing is completely legal and unregulated when performed on these animals, which make up over 95% of the US’s annual animal testing (costing billions of dollars of taxpayer’s money).

The AWA does apply to tests on animals like rabbits, monkeys, and other mammals. However, this testing is still legal when the animals receive a bare minimum “standard of care,” and providing that standard of care will not interfere with the purposes for why the testing is to occur.

monkey sitting on a rock
The AWA allows animals like monkeys/primates to be tested on

We believe the standard set out above is already incredibly weak – but it gets worse.

Under the Animal Welfare Act, all organizations that test on animals that fall under the law are required to establish an in-house committee that includes a veterinarian (know as an “Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee”).

It is this in-house committee that ensures companies comply with the AWA – there is hardly any federal oversight:

Oversight By Federal Agencies

Animal testing in the USA is overseen by the chronically underfunded and understaffed United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; there are over 10,000 animal research facilities in the USA, and the Inspection Service has about 100 Inspectors.

Because of the size of and political willpower that backs the Inspection Service, the penalties for breaches of the AWA are minimal. While breaching the AWA may be unlawful in theory, the profit gained from law violations far outweigh the risks. There is little incentive for brands to use non-animal alternatives.

It is worth noting that testing performed by the CDC for the development of drugs is audited by the Public Health Service. However, the Public Health Service lacks “teeth” in the same way the Inspection Service does.

Under the Animal Welfare Act, effectively, any sort of animal testing is legal so long as the animals undergoing testing receive a minimum standard of care, as long as providing that standard of care won’t interfere with the testing.

rabbits in a testing facility
Rabbits in a typical testing facility

In effect, this means that any type of animal testing you can imagine is legal on a federal level in America, no matter how excruciating and unnecessary it may be. Under the law, the amount of suffering an animal experiences does not matter.

This testing commonly includes things like [WARNING: The following list can be harrowing reading. You may wish to jump down to how cosmetic testing is dealt with.]:

  1. Force-feeding toxic and poisonous products (such as pesticides),
  2. Applying corrosive ingredients to the eyes of rabbits (including cosmetics like mascara),
  3. Taking baby monkeys from their mothers to see how this affects their psychological development,
  4. Damaging muscles, breaking bones, and forcing dogs to run on treadmills to see how it affects their mobility,
  5. Removing organs to study how chemicals affect organ function,
  6. Forcing animals to inhale toxic gasses given off by products,
  7. Injecting untested “medicines” into animals.

The AWA does not exclude which types of animals testing can be performed on. Along with rats, frogs, mice, rabbits, birds, and monkeys, torturous animal experimentation is also performed on common household pet animals like dogs and cats.

What About When Testing Is For The Development Of Cosmetics?

Whether animal testing is for medicines, cosmetics, or household products, it is entirely legal in the US.

This is despite the fact that the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act does not require animal testing to establish cosmetic and household product safety. There are many non-animal tests alternatives available that do not require the death and torture of innocent animals.

The alternatives available include applying products to “synthetic tissue” to determine if they cause harm or skin irritation to humans.

Furthermore, there is no scientifically sound evidence that animal testing is reasonably reliable.

It may seem shocking that companies would choose to test their cosmetics on animals when there is no requirement for them to do so. These companies often provide a number of (weak) excuses, but they mostly boil down to wanting to increase their profits.

Thankfully, we can challenge these companies by refusing to buy products when they are tested on animals. By buying only cruelty-free products, we can incentivize brands to change.

Do Any States Have Bans?

Thankfully, some US states have seen the vicious application of the AWA on a federal level and taken steps to ban cosmetic animal testing in the state.

The states that currently ban animal testing are California, Nevada, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Hawaii. The earliest of these states to introduce a ban was California, and it is clear that momentum is building.

USA states with animal testing bans infographic

These state-wide bans ensure that cosmetics that were tested on animals as part of their manufacturing process, or cosmetics with ingredients that were tested on animals, cannot be imported or sold in those states.

However, there are exceptions to these bans, and it does not mean that all products sold in these states will be truly cruelty-free. The significant exceptions include:

  1. Some sunscreen ingredients are excluded,
  2. If there is solid evidence of a potential health problem with an ingredient and there are no alternatives to animal testing available,
  3. Testing for cosmetic purposes may be allowed if the ingredient also has medical applications.

Because of these exceptions, the state laws are not perfect – but they are a significant step forward to stamping animal testing out in America.

Where To From Here?

While animal testing is still legal in the US, many members of Congress are taking steps to change this.

Late last year, the Humane Cosmetics Act of 2021 (HCA) was introduced to Congress by Sponsor Senator Corey Brooker.

The HCA would end the use of mice, rats, and rabbits for testing makeup, skincare, and other cosmetic products, and it would be phased out in favor of other safe alternatives to animal testing. The end goal is that animal testing would be banned and that the sale of animal-tested products would not be allowed to be imported to or sold in the USA.

Whether or not the law will be passed is still uncertain. But we encourage you to contact your congressman and senators to ensure they are aware of your support for this well-needed change. There are zero reasons why animal testing should be legal in the US in 2022.

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