USDA site wipes records concerning animal welfare violations; HSUS takes action.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has taken the first steps to challenge the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (USDA APHIS) Feb. 3 decision to remove records from its website that pertain to the the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act (HPA).
In a Feb. 6 notice to Sean O'Neill, of the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice, HSUS alleges that the removal of the records violates a court-ordered agreement that APHIS will publish such records following a 2005 lawsuit HSUS brought against the agency. HSUS states that it intends enforce or reopen that lawsuit if the violation isn't amended.
The 2005 lawsuit brought by the HSUS against USDA concerned animal use in university and other laboratories. It was settled in 2009 in with agreement that the USDA would post certain data on its website concerning research on animals. The HSUS notice states that "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 terms of the court order stipulate that once the HSUS has filed a notice of a violation, the parties must consult for 30 days to try and resolve the dispute. If consultation is unsuccessful, the USDA can be ordered to comply or be held in contempt.
The HSUS' prior lawsuit only covers part of the information removed from the APHIS site, but it hopes that the mandatory consultation will give the USDA "a chance to reconsider this ill-advised and precipitous maneuver across the board."
According to its website, after a year-long, comprehensive review of the information it makes available to the public, APHIS removed inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, research facility annual reports, and enforcement records that have not received final adjudication. The agency will also review and redact, as necessary, the lists of licensees and registrants under the AWA, as well as lists of designated qualified persons (DQPs) licensed by USDA-certified horse industry organizations.
APHIS directs those interested in information in the records it used to make publicly available to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to gain access to that information, and that records will be release when authorized and with FOIA and Privacy Act compliance. If a record is requested frequently via FOIA requests, APHIS may post a redacted version to its website. It also notes that some enforcement records (such as initial decision and orders, default decisions, and consent decisions) will be available on the USDA's Office of Administrative Law Judge's website.
The HSUS has also started a petition to bring awareness to the removal of the records.