In this guest post, my writing partner Kim Campbell Thornton looks at the response from the AVMA and animal organizations to the removal of puppy mill and other animal welfare-related inspection reports from the USDA website.
The American Veterinary Medical Association is concerned after the U. S. Department of Agriculture removed from its website inspection reports, regulatory correspondence and other information involving compliance with the Animal Welfare Act by commercial dog breeders and facilities such as zoos and research labs.
Pet buyers, pet sellers and humane organizations who wish to ensure that a USDA-licensed breeder or other animal facility has no AWA violations must now submit a Freedom of Information Act request for the information. The AVMA fears that the amount of time required to process FOIA requests—weeks, months and sometimes years—is at odds with timely access to information needed to support good animal welfare.
Agencies must respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days of receipt but are not required to deliver records within that time frame. A large backlog or a complex request can extend the time further.
“Prior, it was a simple matter to go online to research whether entities have violated the federal Animal Welfare Act,” says Martha Smith-Blackmore, DVM, a forensic veterinarian and former chair of the AVMA animal welfare committee. “Anyone interested in animal welfare could check the site to see inspection reports. Now that information is cloaked from any person or business wanting to ensure they are not patronizing a facility or service in violation of the AWA.”
Seven states—Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, Connecticut, Louisiana and Arizona—plus New York City require pet stores to purchase animals from commercial breeders with no AWA violations. It’s not clear how businesses that sell animals in those areas will be able to comply with the law if they have no practical access to the reports.
The USDA cited privacy concerns and current litigation as the reason for the action, saying the decision was made after a year-long review of the information it posts on its website for public viewing.
In an email, USDA Public Affairs Specialist Tanya Espinosa writes that 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,” she says.
Some enforcement records such as initial decision and orders, default decisions, and consent decisions will continue to be available on the USDA’s Office of Administrative Law Judge’s website.
The Humane Society of the United States has challenged the action. In a February 6 letter to the Department of Justice, HSUS stated that the decision violated a court order requiring the posting of such reports.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty To Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are among other animal protection organizations dismayed by the USDA’s unexpected action. In a statement, the ASPCA said the reports are a valuable tool in passing laws to better protect breeding dogs. The organization uses the inspection reports, funded by taxpayer dollars, to monitor commercial dog breeders and USDA enforcement of AWA requirements.
The ALDF’s executive director Stephen Wells said in a statement, “The Animal Legal Defense Fund hopes the administration reverses course on this decision and will explore all available means to restore free and fair access to such vital public information.”
“These decisions are not final,” says Espinosa. “Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting.”
Until then, Dr. Smith-Blackmore says: “Consumers will have to go blind or not make purchases at all. The real beneficiary of this move is the unscrupulous breeding operations and transporters. Now that their welfare standards won’t be open for the world to see, they will be able to operate any way they like, with no market repercussions from engaged consumers.”