Following Years of Pressure, USDA Announces New Policy for Posting Animal Welfare Records
An Animal Rights Article from

FROM Physicians Committee
August 2020

The USDA has demonstrated that it is more concerned about protecting the reputations of facilities that violate the law while using animals in cruel and useless experiments.

caged Monkey
Photo: Getty Images

A group of organizations including the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine—a national nonprofit of more than 12,000 doctors—ended its lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday after the agency announced a set of policies for the disclosure of animal welfare records. The change comes after years of court battles stemming from the USDA’s abrupt shutdown of its online animal welfare database in February 2017. That same month, the Physicians Committee, PETA, Born Free USA, the Beagle Freedom Project, and Lewis & Clark Law School Assistant Clinical Professor and Animal Law Litigation Clinic Director Delcianna Winders filed a lawsuit against the agency.

Some records had been returned to the database in August 2017 and others were posted in 2020 following the passage of an appropriations bill in which Congress, responding to public pressure, mandated full restoration of the database. But experts at the Physicians Committee remained concerned that the USDA had not complied with Congress’s request and could regress to its previous practices.

The USDA’s new declaration states that the agency will post inspection reports of animal research laboratories and other facilities regulated under the Animal Welfare Act, warning letters sent to facilities, and legal settlements with violators. In addition, the agency will make public its “teachable moments”—controversial documents often created instead of citing facilities for a “noncompliance” on an official inspection report. Critics claim that teachable moments are designed to shield animal users from public scrutiny, but USDA has not posted the records on its database.

The online documents have been essential to the Physicians Committee’s work to end scientifically unsound, cruel experiments. The USDA inspection reports from the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas, revealed many troubling incidents, including a necropsy performed on a baboon who was still alive and a monkey who escaped and was euthanized the following day due to hypothermia after spending the night outdoors. Subsequently, the National Institutes of Health halted the transfer of 186 chimpanzees to that facility and eventually ended the funding of chimpanzee experiments altogether.

In addition, the USDA inspection reports from Harvard’s New England National Primate Research Center revealed that a critically endangered primate known as a cotton-top tamarin was found dead after going through a machine that uses near-boiling water and caustic chemicals to wash cages. Several other similar incidents ultimately led to the closure of the facility.

“This is an important step,” said Physicians Committee Vice President of Legal Affairs Mark Kennedy. “The USDA has demonstrated that it is more concerned about protecting the reputations of facilities that violate the law while using animals in cruel and useless experiments. But we will monitor the agency’s compliance with this declaration to ensure transparency, and we will continue to push the USDA to improve its enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.”

The plaintiffs were represented in the lawsuit by public interest firm Eubanks & Associates, LLC.

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