The U.S. Department of Agriculture has removed a slew of animal welfare data — including inspection records for institutions like zoos, laboratories and commercial breeders — from its website.
Previously, anyone could use a search tool on the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website to look up such information. The general public, as well as animal advocacy groups and journalists, could use the search function to see whether facilities had violated animal welfare regulations.
USDA APHIS attributed the change to concerns about privacy, adding in its announcement on Friday that the decision had come after a year of “comprehensive review.”
“As a result of the comprehensive review, APHIS has implemented actions to remove certain personal information from documents it posts on APHIS’ website involving the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act,” the agency said in a statement. “Going forward, APHIS will remove from its website inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, research facility annual reports, and enforcement records that have not received final adjudication.”
The USDA APHIS site also makes a vague reference to court decisions, but does not cite any specific rulings that would require taking the data offline:
Courts are continuously issuing decisions that provide agencies with guidance on interpreting and applying laws applicable to the release of information to the public by the Federal government, including the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice maintains comprehensive guidance involving the Privacy Act, Freedom of Information Act, and other laws, and updates such guidance based on legal developments. APHIS, with the support from the Office of the General Counsel, continuously monitors these sources of information and refinements to APHIS’ practices are made accordingly.
APHIS says people seeking inspection reports and related information can make a request to the USDA through the Freedom of Information Act, which can be done here. But as ABC News points out, FOIA requests can be expensive, and it can take months or years to receive the requested information.
Numerous animal advocacy groups slammed the change.
“This move makes it IMPOSSIBLE to find out where animals are located, their treatment and any violations, essentially giving carte blanche to anyone to hide animal violations, and violate animal welfare laws, among other things,” the Beagle Freedom Project, a lab animal rescue group, said in a statement on Facebook.
The public deserves to have easy access to the information because taxpayer money funds the enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, Kate Dylewsky of conservation and animal rights group Born Free USA said in a statement obtained by The Dodo.
“The public has a right to know what the government is doing, and this is a blow to both government transparency and to animal advocates’ ability to hold animal abusers publicly accountable,” she said.
The information disappeared from the USDA website two days after Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) introduced a bill to increase transparency surrounding taxpayer-funded animal testing.
One member of President Donald Trump’s USDA transition team, Brian Klippenstein, has a long history of fighting animal welfare regulations. Klippenstein is executive director of Protect the Harvest, a group that, among other things, has vehemently opposed legislation meant to fight abusive puppy mills.
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