Animal Plant Health Inspection Service deletes thousands of animal welfare inspection reports

In a stunning blow to American Government transparency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Division deleted thousands of Animal Welfare Act inspection reports on about 7800 facilities, including about 1100 research labs, from its website.

Animal welfare groups that use those reports to defend animal rights were shaken by the sudden removal.  For example, the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS) use the USDA reports to identify which pet shops are sourcing dogs from puppy mills.  Without the deleted reports inspections can’t be done.

The USDA is the agency that is responsible for ensuring the humane treatment of research animals. APHIS is charged with overseeing the humane treatment of animals in circuses, zoos and those sold commercially as pets. Pet stores and puppy mills fall under this category.

Documents involving the Horse Protection Act (HPA), the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) were removed because they contained personal information. Documents included inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence (such as official warnings), lists of regulated entities, and enforcement records (such as pre-litigation settlement agreements and administrative complaints) that haven’t received final adjudication.

In addition, APHIS will review and redact, as necessary, the list of licensees and registrants under the AWA, as well as lists of designation qualified persons (DQPs) licensed by USDA-certified horse industry organizations to ensure personal information is not released to the public. Those seeking information from APHIS must not submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, a process that can take months or years to expedite.

The right to privacy argument raises eyebrows with skeptics. The USDA already routinely redacts names of individuals from reports. “Claiming privacy is a smokescreen to unjustifiably evade critical transparency about government operations” says Justin Goldman, VP of the non-profit White Coat Waste Project in Washington, DC which opposes animal research.

A coalition of animal welfare groups joined to sue the USDA. Participants include PETA, Born Free USA, the Beagle Freedom Project, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (a public healthy advocacy group).

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) put the USDA on notice that it will use the legal system to restore removed documents. They also reminded the USDA that under the terms of 2009 legal settlement with HSUS the USDA agreed to make public the records now missing from its public database.

In the letter, HSUS argues that the actions by the USDA violate laws governing the electronic release of data under the FOIA such as the law requiring agencies to make electronically available for public inspection all FOIA requests release to anyone. USDA inspection reports on troubled facilities were accessed repeatedly by a number of different users.

Reporting on animal welfare violations significantly ended numerous incidents of animal abuse. The removal of inspection reports takes pressure to comply off of abusers.  Transparency is essential to our democracy. The USDA must reopen access to the reports online. If they don’t the public will assume they have something to hide.

If you want to let the USDA know what you think about the removal of these reports you can contact them here.