USDA re­moves data on an­i­mal wel­fare

In­spec­tion re­ports van­ish from web­site as agency cites pri­vacy

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KARIN BRULLIARD karin.brulliard@wash­post.com

The U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture on Fri­day abruptly re­moved from its web­site in­spec­tion re­ports and other in­for­ma­tion about the treat­ment of an­i­mals at thou­sands of re­search lab­o­ra­to­ries, zoos, dog-breed­ing op­er­a­tions and other fa­cil­i­ties.

In a state­ment, the USDA’s An­i­mal and Plant Health In­spec­tion Ser­vice cited court rul­ings and pri­vacy laws for the de­ci­sion, which it said was the re­sult of a “com­pre­hen­sive re­view” that took place over the past year. It said the re­moved doc­u­ments, which also in­cluded records of en­force­ment ac­tions against vi­o­la­tors of the An­i­mal Wel­fare Act and the Horse Pro­tec­tion Act, would now be ac­ces­si­ble only via Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests. Such re­quests can take years to be ap­proved.

“We re­main equally com­mit­ted to be­ing trans­par­ent and re­spon­sive to our stake­hold­ers’ in­for­ma­tional needs, and main­tain­ing the pri­vacy rights of in­di­vid­u­als with whom we come in con­tact,” the state­ment said.

The records that had been avail­able were fre­quently used by an­i­mal-wel­fare ad­vo­cates to mon­i­tor gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of an­i­mal treat­ment at cir­cuses, zoos and sci­en­tific labs. Jour­nal­ists have used the doc­u­ments to ex­pose vi­o­la­tions at univer­si­ties.

Pet stores and mem­bers of the pub­lic were also able to use the de­part­ment’s on­line database to search for in­for­ma­tion about dog breed­ers. Seven states re­quire pet stores to source pup­pies from breed­ers with clean USDA in­spec­tion re­ports, ac­cord­ing to the Hu­mane So­ci­ety of the United States — a re­quire­ment that could now be im­pos­si­ble to ver­ify.

An­i­mal-wel­fare or­ga­ni­za­tions quickly con­demned the re­moval of the in­for­ma­tion, which they called un­ex­pected and said would al­low an­i­mal abuse to go unchecked.

“The USDA ac­tion cloaks even the worst puppy mills in se­crecy and al­lows abusers of Ten­nessee walk­ing horses, zoo an­i­mals and lab an­i­mals to hide even the worst track records in an­i­mal wel­fare,” said John Good­win, se­nior di­rec­tor of the Hu­mane So­ci­ety’s Stop Puppy Mills cam­paign, which uses the fed­eral records and state in­spec­tion re­ports to pub­lish its an­nual “Hor­ri­ble Hun­dred” list of dog-breed­ing op­er­a­tions that have been cited for wel­fare vi­o­la­tions.

In a state­ment, Kathy Guillermo, the se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals, called it “a shame­ful at­tempt to keep the pub­lic from know­ing when and which laws and reg­u­la­tions have been vi­o­lated. Many fed­er­ally reg­is­tered and li­censed fa­cil­i­ties have long his­to­ries of vi­o­la­tions that have caused ter­ri­ble suf­fer­ing.”

It is un­clear whether the de­ci­sion to re­move the an­i­mal-re­lated records was driven by newly hired Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials. When asked about the change, a USDA in­spec­tion ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive re­ferred back to the de­part­ment’s state­ment. The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported that a de­part­ment spokes­woman de­clined to say whether the re­moval was tem­po­rary or per­ma­nent.

Ad­vo­cates for busi­nesses that rely on an­i­mals, in­clud­ing agri­cul­ture and ex­otic-pet breed­ers, have long re­sented gov­ern­ment over­sight that they say is overly ag­gres­sive and in­flu­enced by an­i­mal-pro­tec­tion groups. Last month, Mindy Pat­ter­son, pres­i­dent of the Cavalry Group — which de­scribes its aim as “pro­tect­ing and de­fend­ing an­i­mal en­ter­prise” — wrote a col­umn ac­cus­ing the USDA of hav­ing “suc­cumbed to the pres­sure of an­i­mal rights ex­trem­ists.” She said pub­lic USDA records had al­lowed groups such as the Hu­mane So­ci­ety and PETA to vil­ify busi­nesses by pub­lish­ing their ad­dresses and pho­tographs of their lo­ca­tions and an­i­mals.

The col­umn was pub­lished on the web­site Joe For Amer­ica, which is main­tained by Sa­muel Joseph Wurzel­bacher, the Ohio man who be­came known as “Joe the Plumber” af­ter a 2008 en­counter with then-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Barack Obama that made Wurzel­bacher a sym­bol of frus­trated Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers.

The USDA web­site change came two days af­ter Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) in­tro­duced a bill call­ing for more in­for­ma­tion about and a re­duc­tion in test­ing on an­i­mals at gov­ern­ment re­search labs. The bill is backed by an ad­vo­cacy group, the White Coat Waste Project, which says such test­ing is a waste of tax­payer dol­lars.

Justin Good­man, the group’s vice pres­i­dent for ad­vo­cacy and pol­icy, said that much of the in­for­ma­tion he has gath­ered on an­i­mal test­ing at hun­dreds of fed­eral fa­cil­i­ties — in­clud­ing in­spec­tion re­ports and an­nual re­ports that can in­clude in­for­ma­tion on the species and num­bers of an­i­mals used — came from the USDA in­spec­tion ser­vice database. He said the de­part­ment’s ref­er­ence to pri­vacy re­quire­ments were puz­zling, be­cause many of the doc­u­ments were al­ready heav­ily redacted.

The page where the in­for­ma­tion was lo­cated now brings up the an­nounce­ment about its re­moval.

“There was al­ready a trou­bling lack of trans­parency about what hap­pens in gov­ern­ment­funded labs,” Good­man said. “This was a very im­por­tant re­source for us, and for ev­ery an­i­mal or­ga­ni­za­tion, in terms of track­ing pat­terns of an­i­mal use and com­pli­ance, whether it’s in labs or other set­tings.” More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ blogs/an­i­malia

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