The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects research facilities that use animals, such as this rabbit.

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Updated: USDA responds to outcry over removal of animal welfare documents, lawsuit threats

*Update, 7 February, 12:15 p.m.: The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a statement this morning regarding the removal of animal welfare reports from its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) website: “The review of APHIS’ website has been ongoing, and the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy. In 2016, well before the change of Administration, APHIS decided to make adjustments to the posting of regulatory records. In addition, APHIS is currently involved in litigation concerning, among other issues, information posted on the agency’s website. While the agency is vigorously defending against this litigation, in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy. These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting.”

This morning, Speaking of Research, an international organization that supports the use of animals in scientific labs, also weighed in on the issue. In a blog post, the organization says it has “considerable concerns about the wealth of information that has been removed from the USDA website in the last week.” The post continues, “When information is hidden … the public wonders what is being hidden and why, and researchers must devote even more resources to combatting the public perception that they are not transparent.” The group has uploaded some of USDA’s past reports on its website. 

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) today put USDA on notice that it intends to use legal tools to force the agency to restore tens of thousands of documents on animal welfare that it removed from its website on Friday.

In this letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, the animal welfare organization reminded the government that under the terms of a 2009 legal settlement with HSUS, USDA had agreed to make public some of the records it has now scrubbed from its public database. HSUS, its lawyers write, “is exercising its rights under [the 2009 settlement] and intends to take further action unless USDA agrees to reconsider this bizarre reversal of the agency’s longstanding policy” of making inspection records and others publicly available.

The animal organization’s letter notes that under the terms of the 2009 settlement, the two parties, HSUS and USDA, now have 30 days to settle their differences. After that, HSUS can ask the court to reopen the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for USDA did not in the course of 3 hours return an email and a call requesting comment.

The HSUS letter also argues that USDA’s actions violate laws governing the electronic release of data under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). One of the laws requires agencies to “make available for public inspection … [By] electronic means” all FOIA requests that it releases to anyone and that it determines are likely to be asked for again, by others. When they were public, many of USDA’s inspection reports, especially those of troubled facilities, were accessed repeatedly by a number of different users.

The lawsuit that was settled in 2009 was brought by HSUS in 2005, after USDA refused to release under FOIA annual reports about animals in biomedical research labs. The 2009 settlement stipulated that the agency must promptly and publicly post those reports from 2009 to 2013. It does not address the years after 2013, nor does it address the many other kinds of documents that were scrubbed from USDA’s public database on Friday. For instance, inspection reports of animal facilities were not covered in the settlement.

Kathleen Conlee, the vice president for animal research at HSUS in Washington, D.C., concedes that the settlement was limited to records through 2013, but adds: “The arguments still apply: Taxpayers have a right to know what animals are being used, how many, and whether they experience pain and distress.” She also noted that personal identifying information is already redacted from what until Friday were the publicly posted reports.

The scrubbed documents detail inspections, animal censuses, enforcement actions, and annual reports on about 7800 facilities, including some 1100 research labs, where animals that are protected under the Animal Welfare Act are kept. Other facilities covered in the reports include zoos, circuses, and animal transporters.

The removal of the documents on Friday prompted an outcry from animal welfare advocates. "With this announcement, transparency has not just been limited—it is has been eliminated," said Eric Kleiman, a research consultant to the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.

USDA said that the blacking out of the documents was a result of its “commitment to being transparent, remaining responsive to our stakeholders’ informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.” It also stated that the decision to remove the records from public view resulted from a yearlong “comprehensive review,” and noted that individuals will continue to be able to access records through FOIA requests. Those can take months or years to receive responses.

“I would certainly agree that protection of personal information is of utmost importance, especially given the rich history of targeting the individuals involved in animal research,” said Matthew Bailey, the president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) in Washington, D.C., which defends the use of animals in research, in a statement. “However, this change also makes it more time consuming, although not impossible, for organizations like FBR to analyze trends in animal use in research.”

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS, stated in this blog today that Brian Klippenstein, executive director of a group called Protect the Harvest, is leading the transition team at USDA. The group on its website lists among its objectives informing “America’s consumers, businesses and decision-makers about the threats posed by animal rights groups and anti-farming extremists.”

Protect the Harvest did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.

*Update, 6 February, 8:06 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify the details of the 2009 settlement.