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By Casey Wooten
The USDA is walking back, somewhat, its scrub of animal welfare records from the department’s website.
In a Feb. 17 announcement, the Agriculture Department said it would post annual animal welfare reports for research institutions and certain federal facilities that the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulates.
Those documents comprise part of the animal welfare data removed from the department’s website Feb. 3. The decision marks a small reversal for the USDA following protests among animal groups and some lawmakers. Several groups say the restoration doesn’t go far enough.
“The animal research facilities constitute just one-seventh of the regulated facilities and nearly all of their inspection reports haven’t been made available,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said. “We need the existing reports for all facilities and all players in every field covered under federal law, and a commitment to post new reports as they are completed by USDA personnel after inspections occur.”
The USDA said Feb. 3 that it would remove from its website animal welfare inspection reports, research facility reports and enforcement records that had not been fully adjudicated, making those documents available only through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The department cited privacy concerns as well as ongoing litigation for the decision.
The USDA also said the changes were planned before the Trump administration took office.
Animal rights groups, which use the data in campaigns against animal laboratory testing, puppy mills, traveling animal shows and other businesses, protested the move, saying that it limited transparency at the USDA.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and several other groups filed a lawsuit against the USDA over the data scrub, saying that it violated a FOIA requirement that it post regularly requested information online.
But the latest move by the USDA is likely related to the Humane Society’s 2009 settlement with the department over access to information about animal use in research labs. The agreement mandated that the USDA post information regarding animal welfare in laboratories on its website.
After the USDA’s Feb. 3 announcement about the data scrub, the Humane Society said it had violated the agreement and threatened legal action.
In its Feb. 17 announcement on reposting the laboratory inspection data, the USDA said the agency was conducting a comprehensive review of documents made public on its website, which necessitated taking the documents offline.
The department also took pressure from Capitol Hill after it removed the online records.
The bipartisan Animal Protection Caucus, led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), sent a Feb. 14 letter to President Donald Trump calling on his administration to restore the documents.
A group of 18 Senate Democrats sent a similar letter to the USDA on Feb. 13.
Buchanan said the USDA’s decision to restore some of the documents was “insufficient.”
“There’s no reason to hold back this vital information,” Buchanan said in a Feb. 17 statement. “This website protects animals and the database should be fully restored. At the end of the day, putting a few documents back online is not good enough.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com
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