Removal of Animal Welfare Data from U.S. Department of Agriculture Website Hinders the Enforcement of State and Local Laws
February 24, 2017
In early February 2017, the United States Department of Agriculture removed records about animal welfare from its website. Previously, anyone could visit the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) website and see inspection records and annual reports for each of the thousands of commercial animal facilities in the United States – including pet shops, zoos, breeders, and research labs. Additional information also was available, including regulatory correspondence (e.g., official warnings issued by the agency) and certain enforcement records (e.g., pre-litigation settlement agreements). Now the records will only be available through requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which often involve months of delay and sometimes require litigation to ensure full access to critical records. When the lengthy and costly delay of a FOIA request is weighed against urgent concerns that animals are suffering in the deplorable conditions cited in the APHIS records, it is easy to see why animal advocates and responsible commercial enterprises reject the FOIA request as a viable alternative to public access.
The impact of this USDA decision is far-reaching. For example, at least seven states prohibit the purchase of animals from commercial breeders or puppy mills that have violations on record. Without easy access to those records, the laws are much harder – if not effectively impossible – to enforce.
Until the records were removed by the USDA, local animal control officers could check the website daily to ensure that pet stores in their jurisdiction were following local ordinances that prohibit those stores from purchasing animals from substandard breeders (e.g., those with animal welfare citations).
Now that the public lacks easy access to information about violations of the Animal Welfare Act (the federal law that regulates treatment of animals used for research and exhibition) and the Horse Protection Act, it is much harder for individuals and responsible commercial enterprises (e.g., large pet stores that refuse to deal with breeders who have violated federal law) to make decisions as to which commercial animal facility to support or patronize. On February 6, the Humane Society of the United States initiated legal action against the USDA, arguing that the removal of records breaches a settlement agreement between those parties in 2009 regarding animal welfare records and threatening to re-open that litigation.
The APHIS records revealed not just mistreatment at sketchy roadside zoos (of which there were plenty), but also at major public and private organizations. For example, APHIS records of citations for failures to comply with the Animal Welfare Act were referenced in a 2012 story in The Harvard Crimson, detailing the deaths of several primates at a Harvard Medical School’s New England Primate Research Center. The 53-year-old facility was closed permanently on May 31, 2015.
According to the USDA, the decision to remove the records was not made recently and is part of the USDA’s ongoing effort to balance the privacy interests of those whose conduct was reported in the records with the interest in transparency about government enforcement efforts. Private animal enterprises had sued USDA about the publication of their records (which may have included personal information) and those lawsuits apparently prompted the decision to remove the records. While sensitive information reportedly had been redacted from such records for years, the USDA opted to remove the records completely rather than take the time to redact additional personal information from the records – as demanded by the commercial animal enterprises.
The broad and important use of the APHIS records prompted eighteen senators and more than 100 Members of Congress to send a letter to the USDA demanding that the records be restored on the website and remain easily available to the public. In the interim, individuals and advocacy organizations are posting to their own websites as many of the deleted records as they can find, in an attempt to make this information public. A social media campaign also has emerged: #NoUSDAblackout.
Most recent (Fiscal Year 2015) reports on the USDA APHIS website for animal research facilities, by state, and by specific category of whether pain to the animal is part of the research and whether or not pain drugs were administered: