Humane Society Threatens Legal Action Over Scrubbed Animal Facility Records

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February 6, 2017 6:26 p.m.
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The Humane Society of the United States announced Monday that it could pursue legal action against the United States Department of Agriculture for its removal of inspection reports for thousands of animal facilities across the country, including zoos, labs and breeders.

The database of reports, which the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) keeps in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act, was removed from the USDA’s website late last week, following what the APHIS said in a statement Friday was “a comprehensive review of the information it posts on its website for the general public to view.”

APHIS said the information, including reports valuable to activists and journalists on which facilities and individuals had been charged with infractions, would still be available to those who filed Freedom of Information Act requests. If the same records are frequently requested, the statement noted, APHIS would post “appropriately redacted” versions of them online.

The Humane Society said this new arrangement violated a 2009 settlement it reached with the USDA concerning access to information collected under the Animal Welfare Act.

“The (Humane Society) sued the USDA in 2005 over public access to (Animal Welfare Act) reports concerning animal use in university and other laboratories. That case was settled in 2009 in exchange for the USDA’s agreement to post certain data on its website concerning research on animals,” the Humane Society said in a statement Monday. “The agency’s precipitous decision to purge virtually all AWA and HPA enforcement documentation – just two weeks after President Trump assumed office — violates the plain terms of the settlement and a federal court order. It also runs contrary to congressional provisions in 1996 and 2016 designed to increase transparency and electronic access to information.”

The Humane Society noted that the USDA, per the 2009 settlement, has 30 days after the society files a notice of violation to try to resolve the dispute, before being ordered to comply or being held in contempt. It also noted that the 2009 settlement only covered a small amount of the information scrubbed from the USDA website.

“The prior lawsuit only covers some of the vast corpus of important enforcement data the USDA has scrubbed from its website,” the statement says. “We hope this mandatory consultation period will give the USDA a chance to reconsider this ill-advised and precipitous maneuver across the board.”

Representatives for APHIS were unavailable to respond to TPM’s request for comment.

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