Robert S. Dawley died last month, a fact duly noted Oct. 23 in the obituary section of The Globe-Times of Bethlehem, Pa.
The obituary, sent to the newspaper by Dawley's boss, identified the deceased as the "director of quality control and a pioneer of in-vivo nutritional projects at Dyets Inc."
It told of his early life, growing up "among the research community at the Rutgers University campus," an association that "led to a lifelong commitment to research."
It was a small, neat, sober obituary. About the only thing not mentioned was that Robert S. Dawley was a large, bewhiskered white rat of the genetic strain named for its developer, R. Sprague Dawley.
Quality control at a tiny company producing specially formulated food for laboratory animals at some of the nation's most prestigious universities and medical research facilities was, in other words, in the hands -- or paws -- of an executive with pink eyes and a long tail.
Dyets, a three-man firm founded in Bethlehem three years ago, contritely confesses that Robert S. Dawley was just the office pet.
But what would have been a good prank in almost any other business has turned out to be no laughing matter in the case of Dyets, one of a handful of firms that supplies special diets to the nation's research labs.
The brouhaha over Robert has pointed out that those firms, whose products are critical to the reliability of research results, apparently exist on an island in a sea of government regulation, a little spit of sand where the spirit of caveat emptor lives -- at least as long as the government isn't the customer.
The broad regulatory tentacles of the Food and Drug Administration extend into the quality of medicated feeds for livestock but not to laboratory diets.
The responsibility does not lie with the National Institutes of Health, although an official said it might if Dyets were supplying a government research facility. "Any lab where a government agency is involved is probably looked at much closer than one with a university involved," he said.
The Pennsylvania firm, with only three employes, not counting Robert S. Dawley, is too small to be regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, although it also provided diets laced with a powerful cancer-causing agent to induce tumors in rats destined for cancer research.
Acetylaminofluorence, the carcinogen the firm reportedly used, is listed in OSHA documents as one of 10 considered too toxic to be tolerated in the workplace at any level.
Government officials acknowledged the possibility that the carcinogen could, if improperly handled, contaminate non-carcinogenic diets produced by Dyets and play havoc with research results. But as they see it, that is somebody else's problem.
"The people who are using these feeds are the ones that have to see that it's properly formulated," FDA spokesman Roger Miller said. He said FDA's Philadelphia regional office has been assigned to look into the matter of the rat but only because the agency received a complaint after the Allentown (Pa.) Sunday Call-Chronicle reported on the rat's death.
"I don't know anybody who regulates it," said Dr. Joseph Knapka, who works in research services at NIH. "Each company that buys lab diets does its own checking."
"It's not so much a regulated thing as it is quality control on the part of the people doing research," another NIH spokesman said.
One research facility that bought laboratory diets from Dyets is the M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, a renowned cancer research and treatment center where the special diets were used in experiments conducted by Dr. Frederick Becker, a cancer pathologist.
Becker declined to discuss the subject, but a hospital spokesman said that it bought carcinogenic and regular diets from the Pennsylvania laboratory and that she "had no idea" if anyone from the hospital checked out Dyets' facilities. Anderson researchers, according to the spokesman, learned about Dyets by "word of mouth" and from a brochure sent out by the laboratory.
Many researchers formulate their diets in their own labs. Those who choose to order their laboratory diets have a choice of only seven firms, and most of those are getting out of the carcinogenic end of the trade.
"We do it on a relatively very small scale here, for researchers," said Dr. Ron Rose, an official with Teklad in Cleveland, one of the seven firms. "Actually, we have been deemphasizing it, not accepting new business."
All of this adds up to a sloppy way of doing business, according to Clark Johnson, who is in the business himself. Johnson runs a laboratory called Bio-Serv in Frenchtown, N.J., where Don H. Yowell, the owner of Dyets, used to work.
Yowell was unavailable for comment, but his father, Howard Yowell says the firm's current troubles are the result of "bad blood" between his son and Bio-Serv, a charge that Johnson denies.