APHIS pulls welfare information from website

After backlash, agency reposts some of the content
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A recent decision by the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to scrub Animal Care information from its website has drawn sharp criticism from researchers, pet stores, and animal rights activists alike, along with Congress. Thousands of reports and documents providing information on compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act were taken off the APHIS website. A number of organizations issued statements saying the decision removes transparency related to how tax dollars are being used. As promised, the agency has already begun reposting some of the content online.

Balancing act

APHIS has provided information on its website concerning its administration of the AWA and HPA for more than a decade, according to a Feb. 3 agency statement. This information includes inspection reports of everything from commercial animal breeding facilities to zoos, research facility annual reports, and lists of persons licensed and registered under the Animal Welfare Act. It also includes a list of people licensed by USDA-certified horse industry organizations to inspect horses for compliance with the Horse Protection Act and to prevent the practice of soring. In recent years, APHIS also began posting AWA and HPA regulatory correspondence (such as official warnings) and enforcement-related information to its website for the general public to view.

But starting Feb. 3, visitors to the site could no longer see Animal Welfare Act inspection reports or annual reports or search for active licensees and registered facilities on what is known as the APHIS Animal Care Information System. The same applied to enforcement actions regarding the AWA and HPA. Judicial officer and administrative law judge decisions in HPA cases were still available through the USDA Office of Administrative Law Judge website at oaljdecisions.dm.usda.gov.

On Feb. 3, the USDA discontinued electronic access to inspection reports, annual reports, and enforcement records from its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website known as the Animal Care Information System. A few weeks later, APHIS had started to repost some of the reports. (Photo by Ken Hammond/USDA)

In a note posted online, available at jav.ma/aphisstatement, APHIS says it has been reviewing its website since last year, “well before the change of administration,” to decide whether to make adjustments to the posting of regulatory records. The agency then went ahead with removing the large amount of online information with no prior notice.

“The agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy,” the statement said. “In addition, 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.”

The statement noted that these decisions are not final and that adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting. Already on Feb. 17, APHIS reposted the first batch of annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports for certain federal research facilities. A week later, APHIS posted more inspection reports, this time for registrants including certain research facilities, intermediate handlers, and carriers that move animals.

The Feb. 3 statement added that those seeking information from APHIS regarding inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, and enforcement records should submit Freedom of Information Act requests.

Tanya Espinosa, a public affairs specialist for APHIS, said Animal Care is continuing to inspect facilities and initiate enforcement action as necessary.

Common ground

Organizations across the spectrum of animal-related industries—even some with opposing views—were quick to speak out against the decision to discontinue postings.

Petland, which sells puppies at about 80 stores nationwide, said taking down the information creates added burdens on responsible pet stores, as they must now obtain USDA inspection reports from individual breeders.

“Along with breeder visits, Petland stores utilize USDA inspection reports to ensure we are buying from breeders who meet our company standards. USDA inspection reports are an objective evaluation of the care provided by breeders thus providing pet stores and consumers the ability to differentiate between the best and the worst kennels,” its Feb. 6 statement said. What's more, several states in their regulations have criteria based on USDA inspection reports, for pet stores and the breeders from whom they purchase the animals. If found in violation of the criteria, breeders can’t sell in those states.

The Foundation for Biomedical Research president, Matthew R. Bailey, gave this statement to Nature magazine during an interview Feb. 6: “I would certainly agree that protection of personal information is of utmost importance, especially given the rich history of targeting the individuals involved in animal research. However, this change also makes it more time consuming, although not impossible, for organizations like FBR to analyze trends in animal use in research.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits 232 zoos and aquariums that are also regulated by the USDA, spoke out against the agency’s decision, too. AZA President Dan Ashe said: “Public disclosure of relevant animal care and welfare information represents our license to operate and is essential for ensuring the public’s trust and confidence in our profession, enabling the public to distinguish the best animal care facilities from poorly run breeding farms and roadside zoos and menageries.”

An APHIS Animal Care veterinary medical officer inspects a research laboratory. As of Feb. 17, APHIS reposted the first batch of annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports for certain federal research facilities after they were taken down reportedly because of privacy concerns. (Photo by R. Anson Eaglin/USDA APHIS)

In addition, a lawsuit filed Feb. 13 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asked the court to force the agency to repost the records it removed. It was filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C.; the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Boston; Born Free USA in Washington, D.C.; the Beagle Freedom Project in Valley Village, California; and Delcianna Winders, an academic fellow of the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Program. The groups claim the records are needed to keep the public informed about the agency’s implementation and enforcement of the AWA.

The Society of Professional Journalists joined OpenTheGovernment and more than 65 other organizations in writing the Office of Management and Budget to remind the USDA and other federal agencies they must give public notice before removing online government information. Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, federal agencies are required to “provide adequate notice when initiating, substantially modifying, or terminating significant information dissemination products.”

The Feb. 13 letter asks that federal agencies “provide the public with advance notice that online information will be removed, including appropriate justification for the removal and instructions on how to access the relevant public information once it is no longer available on the agency’s website.”

Under the authority of the Animal Welfare Act, APHIS' Animal Care program regulates sea lions and other marine mammals. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits 232 zoos and aquariums, was one of many organizations to speak out against the agency’s decision to pull inspection records, among other documents relating to the AWA. (Photo by R. Anson Eaglin/USDA APHIS)

The USDA’s action even got the attention of lawmakers. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and nearly 20 other senators signed a Feb. 13 letter asking USDA Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Young to restore HPA and AWA information to the APHIS website on the grounds that the public has the right to know if federal law has been violated, and, if so, by whom. The missive is available here (PDF). Plus, a Feb. 14 letter to President Donald Trump, sent by a bipartisan group of 101 members of the House of Representatives, demanded that the information be immediately reposted on the public website. It’s available at jav.ma/representativesletter.

Importance of transparency

A Feb. 9 Washington Post article suggested that alleged violators of the Horse Protection Act contributed to the agency taking down information online. Lee and Mike McGartland, Texas attorneys who enter Tennessee Walking Horses in various competitions, received several official warnings between 2013 and 2016 for soring, according to the article. They filed a lawsuit in February 2016 arguing that “the enforcement program denies due process to those accused of violations and breaks privacy laws by publishing personal information.”

Animal Care does play an important role in ensuring the welfare of animals covered under the AWA (and HPA), and a big part of that is transparency of the inspection process and making records available.

APHIS veterinarian

In particular, because the inspection reports are posted online and contain the names of the alleged violators, the McGartlands say that the USDA has violated the federal Privacy Act, which regulates the dissemination of personal information by federal agencies. The lawsuit asks the agency to remove any such documents from its website.

The article also quoted former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as saying that his senior staff informed him toward the end of his term that the agency division responsible for enforcing the Horse Protection and Animal Welfare acts was recommending pulling the records from the website and instead making them available via FOIA requests, but that he did not sign off on the recommendation because “There was not enough time for us to properly vet the recommendation, and I was concerned about transparency.”

A veterinarian at APHIS, who asked not to be identified because of not having authorization to speak on the record, confirmed that the driving force behind the pulling of information was concerns about violating the Privacy Act, or specifically, posting home addresses that were listed for individuals who were licensed or cited by the USDA. The person added that the extent to which the agency went in taking down all the information was “debatable,” but that most of the information will reappear online after careful review.

“The agency is working hard to get information back up as quickly as possible,” the person said.

The APHIS employee added that, if anything good has come from the situation, it’s that people have gained a greater appreciation for how important it is that this information be publicly available.

“Animal Care does play an important role in ensuring the welfare of animals covered under the AWA (and HPA), and a big part of that is transparency of the inspection process and making records available. It provides incentive for those who are regulated to be compliant because they know people who are funding (the inspections) as taxpayers or buying as consumers are interested. Transparency also enables trust in the government to do their job to make sure animals are treated humanely and have good welfare during use and production,” the person said.

AVMA reaction

The AVMA posted a statement Feb. 8 on the AVMA@Work blog regarding the Department of Agriculture’s decision to remove documents it had posted on the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website involving the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act. Later, the AVMA updated its statement after the USDA reposted some of the documents. The AVMA statement at press time March 2 read as follows:

“AVMA has heard from a number of our members since the agency removed compliance information from its website on February 3. Some have voiced concern about reduced transparency and worry about its impacts on animal welfare; some have expressed their support for ensuring the accuracy of compliance reports and the protection of privacy; and others have simply expressed surprise at what appeared to be a sudden decision on the part of the agency.

“The AVMA regularly communicates with USDA-APHIS in our capacity as an advocate for veterinary medicine and animals’ health and welfare. Accordingly, we have and will continue to share our members’ concerns with them, seek more information as to why the agency took this action and what may impact their decisions going forward, and encourage an expedited and careful review process to ensure timely reposting of accurate compliance information. With respect to the latter, we were pleased to see that first steps were taken toward responsible transparency by reposting annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports for certain federal research facilities. Recognizing that legal requirements may ultimately place limitations on what USDA-APHIS may post online, we have also asked USDA-APHIS to adopt process improvements in its responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The latter is critical if stakeholders will need to rely on such requests to obtain publicly accessible information.”

Related JAVMA content:

50 years later, animal welfare act is a work in progress (Oct. 1, 2016)

New animal care leader at USDA (April 15, 2016)

USDA wants dog breeder accreditation (April 15, 2015)

Lawmakers seek expansion of animal welfare regulations (April 1, 2015)