Is Protect the Harvest behind USDA purge of Animal Welfare Act data?
Media Coverage About SAEN Stop Animal Exploitation Now

ACTION ALERT:

Contact:

Bernadette Juarez, Deputy Administrator, USDA/APHIS/AC
(301) 851-2735
Bernadette.r.juarez@aphis.usda.gov 

Sample Message:

Ms. Juarez,

I must insist that you immediately restore public access to the ACIS system which made USDA/APHIS/AC inspection reports, animal use reports, etc. available to U.S. taxpayers. You must also restore access to all USDA/APHIS/AC enforcement action data as well. The people of the United States have a right to know which USDA-regulated research facilities, animal dealers/breeders/exhibitors/transporters are violating the law. Any personal information contained in these documents can easily be removed. Additionally, the USDA statement says that "If the same records are frequently requested via the Freedom of Information Act process, APHIS may post the appropriately redacted versions to its website." I hereby officially request access to all of these documents, the absence of which serves only to protect lawbreakers from public scrutiny.

 

Is Protect the Harvest behind USDA purge of Animal Welfare Act data?
By Merritt Clifton, Animals24-7.org, February 5, 2017

Horse Protection Act enforcement info also deleted

WASHINGTON D.C.––Months of well-placed rumors that U.S. agriculture policy under President Donald Trump will in effect be directed by Indiana oil magnate Forrest Lucas, founder of the anti-animal advocacy organization Protect the Harvest, appear to have been confirmed on February 3, 2017, when––without prior public notice––the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service abruptly purged thousands of pages of Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act data from the USDA-APHIS web site.

Trump on January 18, 2017 nominated former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of which APHIS is a subdivision, but only after Perdue won approval from Lucas, reported the “inside politics” online magazine Politico.

Protect the Harvest formed to attack HSUS

Earlier, Protect the Harvest executive director Brian Klippenstein was for weeks “the sole transition team representative preparing USDA for a new administration,” Politico observed.

Lucas, 74, formed Protect the Harvest in 2011, expressly to attack the Humane Society of the U.S., mentioned three times in the eight-sentence Protect The Harvest mission statement.

Lucas then founded the Protect the Harvest Political Action Committee in 2014 to “raise funds in unlimited amounts” to promote Protect the Harvest political goals.

Alleged the Protect the Harvest mission statement, “The animal rights movement in America, led by HSUS, has evolved into a wealthy and successful attack group determined to end the consumption of meat, threaten consumer access to affordable food, eliminate hunting, outlaw rodeos and circuses, and even ban animal ownership (including pets) altogether.”

Anti-regulatory agenda

Mentioning HSUS by name twice more, the mission statement went on to declare intent to create “lasting legal safeguards for farmers, sportsmen and animal owners,” and “respond to the activities of radical groups like HSUS by opposing their efforts to pass laws or enact regulations that would restrict the rights and freedoms of farmers, sportsmen and animal owners.”

Removing Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act data from the USDA-APHIS web site increases the difficulty that animal advocates must go through to monitor the progress of law enforcement actions, and indeed to ensure that USDA-APHIS is making any effort to enforce federal animal protection laws.

Hiding info embarrassing to Trump boosters

Perhaps as significantly, concealing Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement data hides several sources of continuing embarrassment for commercial dog breeders and walking horse exhibitors, whose histories of noncompliance with Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act have long been easily accessible to media and the public.

Protect the Harvest advocated for commercial dog breeders by investing $2 million in a 2015 film called The Dog Lover, loosely based on a failed USDA-APHIS attempt to prosecute a South Dakota hunting dog breeder using information obtained by HSUS.

Walking horse exhibitors are prominent beneficiaries of a suspension on enforcing new regulations, imposed by Trump within hours of his inauguration.

What USDA-APHIS said

Said the USDA-APHIS web page Updates to APHIS’ Website Involving Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act Compliance Information, “For more than a decade, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service has shared information on its website concerning its administration of the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act. This information includes inspection reports, research facility annual reports, and lists of persons licensed and registered under the Animal Welfare Act, as well as lists of persons licensed by USDA-certified horse industry organizations and associations to inspect horses for compliance with the Horse Protection Act.

“More recently,” the Updates page added, “the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service also began posting AWA and HPA regulatory correspondence and enforcement-related information to its website for the general public to view.”
(See “The Dog Lover,” bull riders, & Forrest Lucas and Did Trump kill rules to protect walking horses?)

No new privacy legislation

The two major U.S. federal laws pertaining to rights of privacy and disclosure of personal information are the Privacy Act of 1974 and the privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act of 1996.

The latter has no visible application to any USDA activity undertaken by the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, while both laws long predate the web posting of Animal Welfare Act enforcement information, all of which was also published in print format until 2013.

Nonetheless, the Updates page claimed, “APHIS, during the past year, has conducted a comprehensive review of the information it posts on its website for the general public to view."

Removing “certain personal information”

This, if true, would suggest that the decision to stop posting the enforcement information originated during the last year of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration––but, if so, the Obama administration published no regulatory amendment or notice to that effect.

“As a result of the comprehensive review,” the Updates page continued, “The Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service 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. Going forward, APHIS will remove from its web site inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, research facility annual reports, and enforcement records that have not received final adjudication. APHIS will also review and redact, as necessary, the lists of licensees and registrants under the AWA, as well as lists of designated qualified persons licensed by USDA-certified horse industry organizations.”

Info can still be had by FOIA––sort of

However, perhaps because of the long history of jurisprudence establishing the public right of access to Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement data, the Updates page did not close the door entirely to obtaining the data.

“Those seeking information from APHIS regarding inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, and enforcement records,” the Updates page said, “should submit Freedom of Information Act requests for that information. Records will be released when authorized and in a manner consistent with the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act,” meaning that while the information might eventually become available, release of it is likely to come in small amounts at a time, and only after page-by-page agency scrutiny.

Further, the Freedom of Information Act is most effectively used when the information seeker already knows what documents to ask for. If other Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act enforcement information is not readily available, an information seeker will rarely know what to try to find out more about.

USDA Office of Administrative Law Judge

“If the same records are frequently requested via the FOIA process, in most instances APHIS may post the appropriately redacted versions to its website,” the Updates page said. “In addition, 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 web site.”

Spot-checking recent cases, ANIMALS 24-7 found no obvious omissions from the USDA’s Office of Administrative Law Judge’s web site––but doing this type of checking requires some knowledge of what cases might have recently been adjudicated.

Some effort does appear to have been made during the Obama administration, however, to restrict access to some information from the USDA’s Office of Administrative Law Judge’s web site.

Says a note on that page, “Beginning with Volume 72 (2013), Agriculture Decisions is published exclusively online…Recent Agriculture Decisions, beginning with Volume 74 (2015), will also be available on the University of Arkansas’ National Agricultural Law Center website. Note: As of October 2015, Volumes 55 through 72 are available online. Volumes 39 through 54 have been scanned but, due to privacy concerns, do not yet appear online. The Editor of Agriculture Decisions is in the process of redacting personally identifiable information from these books.”

Info on 7,813 facilities taken off line

While the new minions overseeing the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service may have hoped the deletion of information on the Friday preceding Super Bowl Sunday might elude immediate public notice, word of it rapidly spread.

Wrote Science staff writer Meredith Wadman, “The [deleted] reports apply to 7,813 facilities that keep animals covered by the Animal Welfare Act. Roughly 1,200 of these are research labs, which are often housed at major academic centers or run by government agencies themselves, including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the act covers animals like dogs and chimpanzees, it does not cover rodents like laboratory mice.

“USDA inspectors routinely visit facilities and upload inspection reports,” Wadman explained. “Labs, companies, and others covered by the act are also required to file annual censuses cataloging the number and kinds of animals in their care. Inspection reports contain little, if any, personal information about individuals.”

“Would not say if removal was temporary or permanent under Trump”

Associated Press reporter Mary Clare Jalonick managed to get a comment from USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service spokesperson Tanya Espinosa before the business day ended. Espinosa, wrote Jalonick, “said the information was removed from the site around 11 a.m. Friday. She would not say if the removal was temporary or permanent in the new Trump administration.”

Continued Jalonick, “As justification, the online notice [Updates] cites ongoing court decisions and guidance from the Department of Justice regarding privacy and Freedom of Information laws. The notice does not cite any specific cases or guidance, and a spokesman for the Department of Justice referred questions back to USDA-APHIS.”

White Coat Waste Project

White Coat Waste Project founder Anthony Bellotti, a former Republican strategist who campaigns against animal use in biomedical research as an alleged waste of tax money, pointed out to numerous media that USDA-APHIS deleted the Animal Welfare Act enforcement data “two days after Representative Ken Calvert (R-California) introduced a bill to require more public information on animal testing.”

Elaborated White Coat Waste Project spokesperson Justin Goodman, “Yesterday, the White Coat Waste Project was on Capitol Hill with a bipartisan group of Congress members celebrating the introduction of important new legislation, the FACT Act, to increase transparency about secretive and wasteful government animal testing. Today we woke up to the discovery that the USDA had––without notice or any cogent explanation––taken down its entire animal welfare database.

“Notified reporters”

“We immediately notified reporters,” Goodman said, “and soon the story was viral with coverage from the Associated Press, Nature, Science, the Dodo, the Washington Post and others.

“White Coat Waste Project explained,” Goodman continued, “how the now-defunct USDA website contained critical information about how many dogs, cats, monkeys and other large mammals are used in government laboratories and other taxpayer-funded experimentation facilities, whether they are subjected to pain, and whether the facilities are in compliance with federal animal welfare laws, a condition of receiving taxpayer funding.

“Waste & abuse”

“While it was far from perfect,” Goodman acknowledged, “White Coat Waste Project relied heavily on this resource to identify waste and abuse, including for a high-profile exposé of dog experimentation by the Department of Veterans Affairs and other government agencies. With the USDA blackout, we have no way of knowing how many dogs, cats and other animals are being abused in laboratories.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Goodman emphasized. “A recent national poll found that two-thirds of voters—73% of Republicans and 68% of Democrats—want more transparency about taxpayer-funded animal testing and that six in 10 want to cut federal funding for animal experiments.”

“Calculated move to protect criminal entities”

Agreed Stop Animal Exploitation Now executive director Michael Budkie, noted for making effective use of USDA-APHIS Animal Welfare Act enforcement information to expose animal abuse at a variety of both public and private laboratories, “This is clearly a calculated move to protect from public scrutiny criminal entities who regularly break federal laws, endangering human health.

“The USDA has made a specious statement regarding personal information,” Budkie charged. “The documents that they have removed contain virtually no personal information. This is NOT about privacy. If this decision to withhold information from the public is not reversed, we will be forced to ask the courts for relief.”

“This is another example,” Budkie alleged, “of the willingness of the Trump administration to stifle the public’s right to know and hide the fact that hundreds of animal laboratories, animal dealers and breeders are essentially career criminals.”

“The public is no longer going to know”

Affirmed John Goodwin, manager of the Humane Society of the U.S. campaign against puppy mills, to Jalonick of Associated Press, “What the USDA has done is given cover to people who neglect or harm animals and get cited by USDA inspectors. The public is no longer going to know which commercial dog breeders, horse trainers, zoos, and research labs have horrible animal welfare track records.”

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