AVMA responds to USDA-APHIS action on release of animal welfare data

UPDATE – February 18, 2017:

On February 17, 2017, USDA-APHIS announced it had reposted the first batch of Animal Welfare Act compliance information on its website. According to the agency, “…the reports posted are part of a comprehensive review of the documents the agency removed from its website in early February and are in the same redacted form as before.”

AVMA has heard from a number of our members since the agency removed compliance information from its website on February 3. Some have voiced concern about reduced transparency and worry about its impacts on animal welfare; some have expressed their support for ensuring the accuracy of compliance reports and the protection of privacy; and others have simply expressed surprise at what appeared to be a sudden decision on the part of the agency.

The AVMA regularly communicates with USDA-APHIS in our capacity as an advocate for veterinary medicine and animals’ health and welfare. Accordingly, we have and will continue to share our members’ concerns with them, seek more information as to why the agency took this action and what may impact their decisions going forward, and encourage an expedited and careful review process to ensure timely reposting of accurate compliance information. With respect to the latter, we were pleased to see that first steps were taken toward responsible transparency by reposting annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports for certain federal research facilities. Recognizing that legal requirements may ultimately place limitations on what USDA-APHIS may post online, we have also asked USDA-APHIS to adopt process improvements in its responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The latter is critical if stakeholders will need to rely on such requests to obtain publicly accessible information.


 

Balancing transparency, accuracy, and privacy

February 8, 2017 – On February 3, 2017, USDA-APHIS announced that it would be making changes to the amount of Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act compliance information provided via its website. Yesterday (February 7, 2017) the agency clarified that it would be “…implementing actions to remove documents it posts on APHIS’ website involving the Horse Protection Act (HPA) and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that contain personal information covered by the Privacy and Freedom of Information Acts or guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice regarding them. These documents include inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence (such as official warnings), lists of regulated entities, and enforcement records (such as pre-litigation settlement agreements and administrative complaints) that have not received final adjudication.”

AVMA has received requests from both our members and the public asking for our perspective on USDA-APHIS’ actions, and inquiring as to this decision’s impact on our advocacy efforts. AVMA has utilized USDA-APHIS online records to obtain information and also to evaluate information shared with us by others related to the welfare of animals used in activities covered under these acts. As such, we are concerned that this information will no longer be as readily available to us. However, , the AVMA also recognizes that the release of information obtained through regulatory activity is subject to requirements established under applicable laws; in this case the applicable laws include both those intended to protect animal welfare and those intended to protect human privacy. Achieving the intents of these laws means a balance must be struck among transparency, accuracy, and privacy when sharing information related to regulatory activity. Furthermore, laws are subject to statutory interpretation, so final decisions are often reached as a result of long and complicated court proceedings. Thus, the AVMA appreciates the challenges that USDA-APHIS faces when determining how to best share the information that it collects in association with its enforcement of the AWA and HPA.

It is good news that USDA has indicated that inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence, and enforcement records may still be obtained by submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. However, the AVMA is concerned that the amount of time required to process FOIA requests may be at odds with timely access to information that is needed to support good animal welfare.  The AVMA understands (from the most recent information provided by USDA-APHIS) that what and how information ultimately will be provided is still under discussion. Should it be determined that privacy concerns prevent USDA-APHIS from sharing this valuable information online, we encourage USDA-APHIS to institute processes that assure that FOIA requests are processed expeditiously, while still affording appropriate attention to accuracy and privacy.

In addition, USDA-APHIS has advised that some enforcement records (such as initial decisions and orders, default decisions, and consent decisions) are available on the USDA’s Office of Administrative Law Judge’s website.

The AVMA will continue to monitor this situation and actively advocate for responsible transparency in the release of data. . In addition, we recognize and extend our appreciation to our colleagues whose work places them in the midst of such difficult discussions and decisions virtually every day. Their commitment to protecting animals’ welfare extends beyond, and is not affected by, whether information is posted online.

12 thoughts on “AVMA responds to USDA-APHIS action on release of animal welfare data

  1. I would very much like to see the AVMA take a very active role in ensuring that this information is made available again. Many states have been relying on this information to enforce laws that prevent pet stores from selling pets from breeders with significant violations. The information provided by the USDA was the ONLY way to back up those laws. As of today, 2/20/2017, that information is still only being made available through the freedom of information act. The AVMA needs to lobby on the behalf of animal welfare, and we as veterinarians need to make sure our clients are aware of the changes so they can apply pressure to their congressional representatives.

  2. I strongly agree with ALL the comments posted so far–the government needs more transparency and oversight, not less. This information has been available for years; to say that it is being removed now because of “privacy concerns” is completely bogus. Julie Levy’s comment above is especially timely: “The fact that the inspections identify many infractions speaks loudly to the need to maintain public [taxpayer] oversight. IF ORGANIZED VETERINARY MEDICINE WILL NOT TAKE A PRO-ANIMAL STAND ON THIS VITAL ISSUE, WE CAN EXPECT TO BE FURTHER SIDELINED BY OTHER ORGANIZATIONS THAT WILL. (emphasis is mine).” I posted a link to information about this issue to my Facebook page, where it could be seen by my friends and others, most of whom are not veterinarians, but all of whom are concerned about animals, good government, good science and strong regulations. So many questionable actions are being taken by this new administration that it is difficult to keep track of them all. So I urge all veterinarians to make this issue known beyond our small professional circles. It is the kind of thing that is of little interest to the mainstream media but something that needs to be broadcast nonetheless.

  3. As a former USDA, APHIS, VS veterinarian, I really empathize with not only my old agency, but all Federal agencies in the current administration’s attempts to decrease transparency in Federal operations. Certainly, the efforts of those in our own fields of animal welfare and veterinary medicine are not well served by these changes. FOIA requests typically take so long to be processed that the information obtained is sometimes no longer timely or useful.

    The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act (HPA) have struggled mightily over the decades to protect animals under their jurisdiction – always with very limited allocated financial resources.

    Strong advocacy from the AVMA for the AWA and HPA is essential and must not wane.

  4. This is the first issue since becoming an AVMA member in 1997 that I have made a gov. relations request. I implore the AMVA to take a strong stance by insisting that sunlight be applied to the animal welfare reports. The USDA has my upmost respect as an agency. However, this particular action is regressive for animal welfare oversight. In my opinion, this is what the AVMA is designed to counter. I want my dues to be directed toward this effort. My expectation is unwavering pressure on the behalf of animal welfare by the AVMA.

    • I see no clear plan to promote transparency with in the USDA on Animal Welfare. It’s unacceptable to waiver on this issue. Action is required. I won’t renew my membership unless I feel the AVMA is going to stand up to this lack of transparency.

  5. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on February 6 abruptly removed inspection reports and other information from its website about the treatment of animals at thousands of research laboratories, zoos, dog breeding operations and other facilities. Many of us are concerned about the loss of access to this information. I am pleased that we are at least starting to make comment on the topic.

  6. Please add my voice to the rising chorus of AMVA member veterinarians dismayed by the weak and lackluster response to the USDA’s cloaking of what should be public documents. We need access to welfare reports. Keeping them under wraps gives license to egregious practices continuing and animals bear the cost. We cannot claim to be animal welfare advocates if we sit idly by while the USDA worries more about personal reputations than animal safety. When an inspections reveal infractions, publish!

  7. FOIA requests can take years to be fulfilled and are not a substitute for transparency in animal welfare cases. In several states, including my state of Maryland, pet stores that sell puppies and kittens must show that the breeders they obtain the young animals from are a USDA-approved facility. This ensures at least a minimum level of care for these animals. The record of this certification is on the deleted web page.

    As a long term member of the AVMA, I urge that AVMA take more of a leadership role in advocating for the re-posting of the Animal Welfare page on the USDA website.

  8. There is no place for privacy where the treatment of animals is involved. These reports need to be public just as health department inspection results are public on eating establishments.

  9. As an AVMA member since 2001, I also agree with Dr. Levy’s comment. I was appalled by the removal of animal welfare data and I disagree that FOIA requests will provide timely and reliable access to this information. As an organization, the AVMA should be taking a stronger stance on this important issue.

  10. I am also a longtime member of the AVMA and whole-heartedly agree with Dr. Levy’s comment above. The veterinary profession should strongly advocate for animal welfare, and inspection reports such as those that have been removed from the USDA website are key tools to hold facilities accountable.

  11. As a longtime member of the AVMA and an IACUC-approved and USDA-inspected animal researcher, I hope the AVMA will take a stronger stand against the information blackout imposed on the USDA inspections. These inspections are paid for by taxpayers like me who want animal industries to conform to animal welfare regulations. The fact that the inspections identify many infractions speaks loudly to the need to maintain public oversight. If organized veterinary medicine will not take a pro-animal stand on this vital issue, we can expect to be further sidelined by other organizations that will.

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