Animal labs like this Wisconsin center are subject to periodic, unannounced U.S. government inspections.

© Kevin J. Miyazaki 2006

Few U.S. animal inspections are being posted

The Donald Trump administration appears to have reversed its decision to remove from public sight the results of past government inspections of animal research facilities. But getting hold of new inspection reports is proving to be another matter. An animal welfare researcher has found that only four reports have been posted during the first quarter of 2017. During the first quarter of 2016, 406 inspections of research facilities were conducted; animal activists say those reports were generally posted in a timely manner.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is the arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for inspecting animal research facilities and other animal enterprises to ensure their compliance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Its website declares that it “make[s] inspection reports [publicly] available 28 days after the inspection is finalized.”  Typically, the agency has posted reports on scores of research facilities on a frequent, rolling basis: It needs to do so to keep current with regular inspections of some 1000 research labs that are under its oversight.

However, an interested citizen looking for new reports from 2017 would find four in the public database maintained by APHIS: Conducted on 10, 12, and 17 January, the reports cover inspections of animal facilities at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and at three small colleges in California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. No new reports have been posted since President Trump’s 20 January inauguration.

The data on new inspections were provided to ScienceInsider by Eric Kleiman, a researcher with the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C. He reviewed the more than 7000 pages of inspection reports for research facilities in 49 states and the District of Columbia that are currently available  in the APHIS database. (Data for Oklahoma are missing; they are still being reviewed, according to USDA.)

Asked whether the lack of new reports indicates that the agency has stopped inspecting research labs, or has simply stopped posting the reports for the public, USDA/APHIS spokesperson Tanya Espinosa wrote in an email: “APHIS inspections are still occurring. And they are still available 28 days after they are finalized—they can be requested via [Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)] request.” This reporter was also told to use FOIA to learn how many inspections have been conducted in the calendar year 2017. (In 2016, the average time for APHIS to respond to a simple FOIA request was 94 days; complex requests took an average of 234 days.)

The agency removed all public records of AWA enforcement from its database on 3 February, saying that citizens could request them using the FOIA process. This new policy generated an outcry from animal research defenders as well as animal rights activists. In response, the agency began reposting the data piecemeal.  For instance, since 3 March the agency has reposted inspection reports for 2014–16 for the vast majority of research facilities that it regulates. 

Asked today whether and when the agency will begin posting new inspection reports in its public database, Espinosa wrote: “The agency will continue to review records and determine which information is appropriate for reposting.”

Kleiman believes that the “vast majority” of past inspection reports have been restored, based on his analysis of the currently listed research facilities, compared with a list of registered research facilities that he downloaded from the agency website last fall, before the data were scrubbed. But that does not satisfy him. “Why post the inspections online at all if they are going to remain static, like dinosaurs in the tar pits?” he asks. “This is misleading, pure and simple.” Kleiman also takes issues with USDA’s explanation in February that it was scrubbing data from the website in part “based on our commitment to being transparent.” The new policy, he says, is “the opposite of ’transparent.’” The lack of timely posting of new reports also concerns defenders of the use of animals in research. “The USDA should ensure it puts up as much information as possible for the public,” says Tom Holder, the director of Speaking of Research, an international group that argues for the importance of animals in medical research and testing. “Because if it’s too difficult to get at, people start to suspect that something is being hidden from them.”

Also today, a group of animal welfare organizations took another step in its lawsuit demanding that USDA restore to full public access the two user-friendly databases that formerly cataloged all of the agency’s AWA documents, from annual reports of registered facilities to inspection reports and enforcement actions. The Animal Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco, California, and three other groups asked Judge William H. Orrick of the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California to issue a preliminary injunction requiring USDA to immediately return all the records to public view. A hearing on the motion is set for 10 May.

*Update, 30 March, 11:07 a.m.: This article has been modified to reflect that 406 inspections of animal research facilities were conducted by APHIS in the first quarter of 2016. It cannot be verified that all the reports were posted within 28 days of their being finalized.

*Update, 31 March, 12:57 p.m.: Today USDA told ScienceInsider that officers of its Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service have inspected about 300 animal research facilities between 1 January and 30 March.