One of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s jobs is to enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Unfortunately for the animals, the part of USDA tasked with this important mission—the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)—seems to resent having to do this work.
The best evidence for this is that in recent years APHIS personnel have undermined the public-facing database that groups like NEAVS use to identify violators of the Animal Welfare Act. APHIS staff did this, for starters, by deleting the entire database with no warning in early 2017. Under a firestorm of criticism from the public, the media, and members of Congress of both parties, APHIS reluctantly put back some of the records, but even then redacted nearly everything that mattered, ensuring the reinstated documents weren’t of much use to anyone. Notices of enforcement actions, which used to get posted, are nowhere to be seen. You want the photos that accompany inspection reports? Forget it. Also missing: last year’s written explanations from laboratories about why they put some animals in pain with no relief.
Congress repeatedly warned APHIS not to play these games, but the agency just wouldn’t listen. The result is both predictable and fantastic: Last week, Congress mandated that APHIS restore the entire database. They’re being ordered to put back everything that went missing in early 2017 (not just some of it), plus all such documents that have been created since then. What’s more, APHIS has to do this quickly—in the next 60 days. And, to make this even better, Congress explicitly stated that APHIS can’t black out (redact) portions of the documents, except for people’s signatures.
Those of us who believe in both transparency and enforcing the AWA have something to celebrate: The USDA’s APHIS has finally been called out for these antics and forced to reform its ways.
The President is expected to sign this into law before midnight Friday (December 20, 2019), and we couldn’t be more thrilled about this reform, which will help us and others to identify chronic Animal Welfare Act violators, discern patterns of abuse that can be used to hold those violators accountable, and find out who’s the subject of APHIS’s increasingly rare enforcement actions.
Here’s the actual bill language (p. 306), which is a product of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees:
SEC. 788. The Animal and Plant Health InspectionService shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law:
(a) within 60 calendar days, restore on its website the searchable database and its contents that were available on January 30, 2017, and all content generated since that date; and
(b) hereafter, make publicly available via searchable database, in their entirety without redactions except signatures, the following records after enactment of this Act for a subsequent period of three years:
(1) all final Animal Welfare Act inspection reports, including all reports documenting all Animal Welfare Act non-compliances observed by USDA officials and all animal inventories;
(2) all final Animal Welfare Act and Horse 18 Protection Act enforcement records;
(3) all reports or other materials documenting any non-compliances observed by USDA officials; and
(4) within six months of receipt by the agency, all final Animal Welfare Act research facility annual reports, including their attachments with appropriate redactions made for confidential business information that USDA could withhold under FOIA Exemption 4.