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

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Update: After Congress complains, USDA restores animal welfare reports

*Update, 9 April, 5:20 p.m.: Following Congress’s request for greater transparency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has apparently restored detail in its most recent animal welfare inspection reports. Reports published on the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website since last August have omitted inventories that list the number and species of animals housed at facilities within companies and research institutions. But newly posted reports seem to reflect lawmakers’ concerns that such redactions make it hard to track the agency’s findings and activities. Newly posted inspection reports, dated March, are apparently the first since last August to show animal inventories. USDA did not immediately respond to request for comment on whether it plans to include such information in all future reports. Below is our original story from 22 March.

There was an outcry from both animal welfare groups and animal research defenders 13 months ago when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) blacked out a public database containing thousands of animal welfare inspection reports, as well as records of enforcement actions that USDA took against violators of the Animal Welfare Act, including research facilities.

Months later, the agency began posting the inspection reports again, but in a redacted form that critics said made the records much harder to analyze. And USDA did not continue to post enforcement actions, forcing outsiders who wanted those records to file a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA process typically takes many months to yield a response and often produces heavily redacted documents.

Now, Congress is telling USDA that it isn’t happy about the situation, and is ordering the agency to clean up its act and make the database more user-friendly.

Yesterday, lawmakers released a report accompanying USDA’s 2018 spending bill. The report notes the agency “is now posting heavily redacted inspection reports that make it difficult in certain cases for the public to understand the subject of the inspection, assess USDA’s subsequent actions, and to evaluate the effectiveness of its enforcement.”

That move violates previous congressional direction, the report says, which requires “that the online searchable database should allow analysis and comparison of data and include all inspection reports, annual reports, and other documents related to enforcement of animal welfare laws. USDA is directed to comply with these requirements …”

R. Andre Bell, a public affairs specialist at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in Riverdale, Maryland, the part of USDA that is responsible for conducting animal welfare inspections, wrote in an email: “APHIS is reviewing the language and has no comments at this time.”

Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research in Washington, D.C., says that the language is a solution in search of a problem. “I am currently not aware of any heavily redacted research compliance reports. In fact, we have continued to successfully retrieve the information we need for our compliance analyses.” He added: “If the website were to become inoperable, we would still be at liberty to file a Freedom of Information Act Request for the same information.”

But animal welfare groups welcomed the language. “The Animal Welfare Institute applauds Congress for forcing USDA to lift its veil of secrecy,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Washington, D.C.–based group.

Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), also in Washington, D.C., said she is “very pleased” with the language. “The HSUS has been working closely with Members of Congress over the past year to address USDA’s outrageous purge and redaction of these vital documents.”

In a related development, HSUS yesterday sued APHIS after the group requested, under the FOIA, inspection reports for three puppy breeding facilities where the group says it had conducted undercover investigations and found serious animal abuses. The agency released the reports with their entire substances redacted, including inspection dates, the number and species of animals at the facilities, and whether violations were found.

Congress is expected to vote on final approval of the spending bills this week.

With reporting by Kelly Servick.