The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today restored some of the tens of thousands of animal welfare documents that it removed from its website early this month.
In this announcement, the agency says that it is “posting the first batch of annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports” resulting from a “comprehensive review” that began with the complete removal of previously public documents that are generated by the agency as it enforces the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act. The new announcement points readers to the reposted information on the USDA website, here.
Those familiar with the records say USDA has so far restored only a small number of the previously posted documents. Among the data still unavailable are the vast majority of reports from regular inspections of animal-holding facilities that are monitored under AWA, including puppy mills and zoos. A number of groups have sued USDA to force it to repost all of the records.
“Under duress, the USDA is now attempting to get away with reposting only a tiny fraction of the animal welfare records it suddenly and indefensibly deleted … and that does not satisfy PETA [People for the Ethical Treatmeant of Animals] or the other plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit against it,” said Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement at the PETA Foundation in Washington, D.C. PETA has sued the agency to force it to restore the records, and says it won't drop the suit until USDA complies.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in Washington, D.C., stated: "This is an important turnaround and a good start, but the USDA has a lot more to do here. Lawmakers, the press, animal advocates, and even the regulated community want transparency and accessible records." HSUS also noted that the agency has failed to repost documents that it agreed to make public under the terms of a 2009 legal settlement with the animal welfare group.
Another reaction came from Speaking of Research, a group that supports the use of animals in research and has offices in the United States and the United Kingdom.
"Speaking of Research welcomes the decision by the USDA to repost many annual reports and inspection reports to its website,” it said in a statement. “Such information helps foster and encourage a global trend towards openness in animal research. Nonetheless, there is more to do; all institutions which conduct or fund animal experiments should have a clear statement online, explaining how and why they do this, in order that the public can understand the important role of animals in research."
The first batch of records being reposted, USDA wrote, come from U.S. research labs regulated under AWA. The department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service oversees more than 7800 animal holding facilities from zoos to circuses and aquariums, including roughly 1100 labs, some of them run by the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tanya Espinosa, a spokesperson for USDA in Riverdale, Maryland, added in an email: “This first batch of [documents] … was reviewed for personal information and reposted. We will continue posting documents over the next few weeks.”
Complaints from Congress
Members of Congress from both parties and both sides of Capitol Hill are not satisfied.
Representative Vern Buchanan (R–FL), one of two co-chairs of the congressional Animal Protection Caucus, called the USDA response “insufficient,” adding: “This website protects animals and the database should be fully restored.”
“Many questions still remain,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow (D–MI), the senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, which oversees USDA. Stabenow said she wants “clarity” about why the documents were removed to begin with.
The USDA announcement also noted that reports of some enforcement actions—when USDA moves against violators of the law—are available for public viewing at the website of the agency’s Office of Administrative Law Judges.
The move comes after a public outcry that included, in the last few days: a lawsuit by animal welfare groups; a letter of protest sent to the agency from 18 Senate Democrats; and this letter to President Donald Trump, sent by a bipartisan group of 101 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, demanding that the information be immediately reposted on the public website. The organizations that opposed the document blackout included groups that support medical research with animals, pet store chains, zoos and aquariums, and animal welfare groups. All argued that the lack of transparency would damage public trust and enforcement of animal welfare laws.
More groups sue
On 22 February, another coalition of animal welfare groups sued USDA to force reposting of the documents. Like organizations that sued the agency last week , the groups—the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the Companion Animal Protection Society, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, and Animal Folks—invoke the Freedom of Information Act in arguing that USDA is legally obliged to restore the records.
But in their lawsuit, filed in federal court in the Northern District of California, the groups add a new legal twist. They argue that USDA also violated the Administrative Procedures Act. That law prohibits government agencies from taking actions that are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law[.]” And the four groups say that USDA’s action in removing the records fits this description.
“The information blackout is a tremendous blow to transparency and undermines advocates who are working to protect hundreds of thousands of animals across the country,” Stephen Wells, executive director of ALDF, said in a statement.
ALDF is based in San Francisco, California; the Companion Animal Protection Society and Stop Animal Exploitation NOW describe themselves as national nonprofits; and Animal Folks is based in St. Paul.
Update: legislation introduced
Six Senate Democrats led by Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a bill on 2 March that would return to public view thousands of animal welfare documents generated during enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. USDA removed the documents from its website on 3 February. It began restoring them piecemeal on 17 February, but that has not satisfied critics, including some in Congress.
“This legislation will ensure the restoration of all the data USDA recently wiped from its website,” Menendez said in a statement.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and at least 30 cosponsors are planning to introduce an identical version of the Senate bill early next week. Called the Animal Welfare Accountability and Transparency Act, it would also take away a valuable tax benefit for five years from companies that violate the Animal Welfare Act or the Horse Protection Act.
*Update, 3 March, 4 pm: Information on the introduction of a bill in Congress was added. It would force USDA to return all documents removed from its website to public view.
*Update, 22 February, 4:25 p.m.: Information on the lawsuit brought by ALDF and other groups was added to the story.
*Update, 17 February, 4:25 p.m.: Comments from Senator Debbie Stabenow and Representative Vern Buchanan were added, as was an example of the kind of data still missing from the USDA website.
*Update, 17 February, 2:30 p.m.: Comment from the PETA Foundation was added.