Back in February the USDA, United States Department of Agriculture, deleted it’s public database of inspection records from zoos, circuses, and animal experimentation and research labs. What followed was public outcry, scrutiny by Congress and a lawsuit. It’s been 6 months since that happened and still the database has not been re-installed nor it’s disappearance explained.
The USDA is responsible for upholding and enforcing the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act, which federally protect the standards of care and treatment of animals. The database acted as a valuable source of accurate information used by journalists, investigators, animal welfare groups and the public to look up inspection reports and violations of animal welfare laws.
The USDA has cited privacy concerns and litigation for its decision to remove this information. Arguably, privacy and ongoing litigation can and were being protected by redacting sensitive information from the database. However, the USDA stated that going forward all those wanting access to this public information should submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. And that’s what they’ve done.
The number of FOIA requests has significantly increased, and in fact is more than double what it was for the same period in the previous year. The USDA is now claiming they are overwhelmed by FOIA requests. Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that the division now has 1,596 open FOIA requests. The service “continues to work as expeditiously as possible to search for the requested records and to process and release them according to requirements of the FOIA statute,” she said.
PETA, Born Free USA, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and others have filed a law suit against the USDA on the basis that they are in breach of the FOIA’s 1996 electronic records requirement, arguing that the agency is legally required to proactively post records, as they have done for many years, that are frequently requested or are likely to be. USDA has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, saying that it misinterprets federal law and that the online publication of such records was previously done by choice, in part to reduce the FOIA backlog.
The backlog continues to grow and some have not received the information requested through the FOIA channels. National Geographic filed a Freedom of Information Act request in February for records relating to the decision to take the database offline. They were shocked to receive 1,771 pages of completely blanked out documents – in effect a book of black pages.
Washington has made it’s position clear as the House appropriations bill, approved last month, demands that the USDA “promptly finish reviewing the information on its website, restore all legally permissible records previously removed, and resume posting on the USDA website.”
Whilst we may never find out why this information, required to be made public, has been removed from the public domain by the very agency set up to protect animals is not clear. What is known is that it is having a serious knock on effect for animal care and protection with the Humane Society’s John Goodwin believing the only beneficiaries to continued secrecy are abusers.
“We want [the database] back up, the American Zoological Association wants it back up. The entire research community wants it back up. The only people who don’t are extremists who want to bury the truth.”