Humane Society Pledges Legal Action Against USDA Data Scrub

By Casey Wooten

The Humane Society of the United States said it would take legal action against a USDA decision to scrub animal welfare records from the department’s website.

In a memo to the Department of Justice, the animal rights group said the Department of Agriculture was in violation of a 2009 settlement between the Humane Society and the USDA over access to information about animal use in research labs.

Citing privacy concerns, the Agriculture Department said Feb. 3 it would remove inspection reports from its website about the treatment of animals at research labs, roadside zoos and dog breeders, among other businesses. The information would only be available through a Freedom of Information Act request. The move sparked protest from animal rights groups, which said FOIA requests may take years to complete and thus limit their access to important data.

“These are invaluable data points that we stitch together to create a really compelling narrative about the need for change, and all of that is in jeopardy now because we don’t know what the backlog is for FOIA requests,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, told Bloomberg BNA.

The USDA move comes amid a string of controversial decisions by federal agencies involving public access to information.

In late January, the USDA Agricultural Research Service issued an internal memorandum calling for a suspension of “public-facing documents” such as news releases. The memo caused controversy because it was unclear as to whether the suspension included research conducted by the agency or submissions to scientific journals. The department backtracked shortly afterward, saying that it would issue new guidance.

Thirty-Day Deadline

The Humane Society sued the USDA in 2005 over public access to Animal Welfare Act information on animal use in universities and laboratories. As part of a 2009 settlement, the Humane Society said, the USDA agreed to post certain information on its website concerning research using animals.

“Under the order, once we file a notice of a violation, the parties must consult for 30 days to try to resolve the dispute,” the Humane Society said in a Feb. 6 statement. “If that is not successful, the agency can be ordered to comply or be held in contempt.”

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) continuously monitors Justice Department guidance on the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act and makes refinements to USDA policy as needed, APHIS spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said in an e-mailed statement.

“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,” Espinosa said.

Privacy Concerns

For years, the USDA has published inspection reports, research facility reports and lists of individuals registered under the Animal Welfare Act, as well as a separate list of organizations registered under the Horse Inspection Act. More recently, the department began posting regulatory compliance and enforcement actions, as well.

Animal rights groups have used the data in campaigns opposing puppy mills, animal testing and horse soring, the practice of injuring a horse for the result of an artificial gait, which has been used in conjunction with certain equestrian competitions.

The USDA said that, during the past year, the department conducted a review of the information it posts on the APHIS website and decided to remove certain information from public view in the interest of privacy.

“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 said in its Feb. 3 statement.

Timing

Pacelle called the move “ominous” and said that, despite the department’s assertion that the review had been some time in the making, the timing—just two weeks after President Donald Trump’s inauguration—was probably not a coincidence.

That may bear out. Matt Herrick, a former USDA spokesman in the Obama administration tweeted Feb. 5 that his administration had the same option to scrub the public data, but declined.

Trump’s picks to craft USDA policy are likely to be less friendly to the interests of animal rights groups than his predecessor’s administration.

The Trump transition’s point-man for the USDA, Brian Klippenstein, has been a frequent critic of animal groups such as the Humane Society. Klippenstein is executive director of Columbia, Mo.-based Protect the Harvest, which has battled animal rights regulations it says are detrimental to farmers and hunters.

The Humane Society and Protect the Harvest recently squared off over a Massachusetts ballot initiative creating minimum enclosure sizes for egg-laying hens, sows and veal calves. Voters approved the Humane Society-backed measure, known as Question 3, in the November 2016 election.

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

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