Animal groups battle USDA

Animal groups battle USDA
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Animal rights groups are up in arms over the thousands of animal welfare documents missing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) website.

The agency is facing two separate lawsuits from activist groups demanding that it restore the records in full — documents that include animal welfare violations at zoos, by breeders and in research labs.

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The USDA said it removed the records on Feb. 3 because it is involved in litigation, saying “in an abundance of caution” it was “taking additional measures to protect individual privacy.”

As The Washington Post first reported, a Tennessee walking horse organization called Show sued the USDA in 2016, along with a Texas couple, over public records they claimed falsely identified people as having violated the Horse Protection Act (HPA).

About a month after the records were removed, Show and the couple dropped their lawsuit, saying they achieved their main objective.

Jeffrey Howard, a board member of the horse event that owns Show, said he doesn’t know why the agency went as far as it did.

“That lawsuit had nothing to do with Animal Welfare Act records,” he said. “It had to do with Horse Protection Act records, so they were vastly different things.”

The HPA prohibits people from entering a “sore” horse in a show — those with cuts, bruises, soreness or scarring from breeders, owners or trainers intentionally inflicting pain to a horse’s legs or hoofs to exaggerate the high-stepping gait they are judged on when shown.

But in removing records of HPA violators and those who had been accused of HPA violations, the USDA also took down its entire database of inspections and enforcement actions under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

The AWA sets standards for the humane care and treatment of animals that are exhibited to the public, bred for commercial sale, used in medical research or transported commercially.

In a lawsuit filed in the Northern District of California, the Animal Legal Defense Fund — along with Stop Animal Exploitation Now, the Companion Animal Protection Society and Animal Folks — argued that these documents need to be public to effectively fight animal abuse and monitor the agency’s regulatory efficacy.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and five other animal rights advocacy groups have also filed a lawsuit in the District Court for the District of Columbia.

While animal rights groups are demanding the records be restored, a trade group for commercial breeders is praising the USDA for being cautious about personal privacy.

“We hope to see this resolved quickly, but it needs to be resolved in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily expose families that do this in their own homes to the possibility of harassment and even in some cases outright threats,” said Mike Bober, president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC).

Bober said PIJAC is aware of multiple breeders who have received intimidating or threatening messages from people because of information that was available on the USDA’s website.

“It’s worth pointing out that the presence or absence of reports no way impacts USDA’s inspection and enforcement responsibilities,” he said.

But Matthew Liebman, director of litigation at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the fact that some people don’t like being protested against shouldn’t be a basis for denying the public information.

“The Supreme Court has reiterated that once a property has opened up to commercial business your expectation of privacy is greatly diminished,” he said.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Democratic Sens. Ron WydenRon WydenTrump's Democratic tax dilemma Senate Dems push Trump admin to protect nursing home residents' right to sue Overnight Finance: Trump-Russia probe reportedly expands to possible financial crimes | Cruel September looms for GOP | Senate clears financial nominees | Mulvaney reverses on debt ceiling MORE (Ore.) and Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezLawmakers target horse meat trade Senators, staff get approval to testify in Menendez corruption trial Trump admin not opposed to new war authorization MORE (N.J.) have introduced legislation to force the USDA to restore its online records. The Animal Welfare Accountability and Transparency Act has also been introduced in the House by Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerDems push for tough GMO labeling rule 5 things members of Congress are doing over August recess Lawmakers target horse meat trade MORE (D-Ore.).

“Transparency is key when it comes to giving animal lovers and consumers information about whether their pets or the products they buy are the result of heartbreaking beginnings,” Wyden said in a statement.

“This bill gets the facts out there to identify and hold puppy mill operators accountable while making sure taxpayers aren’t paying to keep animal abusers in business.”

The legislation follows a letter Wyden and 17 other senators sent to acting Agriculture Secretary Michael Young last month urging the agency to restore access to the records.

“The USDA annually inspect 9,000 licensed facilities including commercial dog and cat breeding facilities, laboratories, zoos, circuses, airlines, Tennessee walking horse shows and other operations,” their letter said.

“The work product that USDA employees create through these enforcement programs provides critical information about both compliant and non-compliant licensees.”

The USDA has since reposted the annual reports and inspection reports for research facilities, as well as inspection reports for certain licensed facilities.

“[The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] is continuing to review documents it removed from its website and will make additional information available, as appropriate, in the future,” agency spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said in a statement to The Hill on Monday.

But Liebman said the inspections — now listed in state-specific PDF documents — are in a new format that’s significantly more burdensome to examine.

“With the database, we could easily and quickly find inspection reports by facility and search by other parameters such as species, type of violation, et cetera,” he said.

“What they have now is just a document dump by state, with hundreds or thousands of pages in a single PDF.”