This post has been updated.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that “after carefully considering feedback from the public,” it will not begin using third-party inspections of some zoos, breeding operations and research labs as part of a “risk-based” assessment of overall compliance with animal welfare laws.
The proposal, which the USDA first publicized in December, was part of a broader reevaluation of the inspections process at more than 10,000 facilities assessed under the Animal Welfare Act by 103 agency inspectors. The agency’s risk-based system relies on a facility’s record of compliance with animal welfare laws, among other details.
The department, which for decades has routinely conducted surprise inspections at facilities to monitor whether they are adhering to such laws and to issue warnings or penalties if not, had also begun testing the idea of conducting “announced inspections.”
But the public pushed back hard. A five-paragraph bulletin posted online Friday afternoon noted that APHIS had received more than 35,500 written comments and found “the vast majority … to not be in favor of establishing new criteria for recognizing third party inspection and certification programs.”
Kitty Block, acting president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement Friday that the move “signaled a willingness to heed the public will” on the part of the administration.
The department did not indicate whether it was jettisoning other plans announced in a letter last month. That missive — sent by Bernadette Juarez, the deputy administrator of animal care in the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — indicated it was exploring whether letting some facilities know inspectors are coming “improves the efficiency of our inspection program and improves the humane treatment of animals.” The department has no plans to discontinue unannounced inspections but is considering “blending” them with announced ones, she wrote.
Both ideas unsettled animal protection advocates, who thought they would reduce accountability for an agency that has already come under fire for a lack of transparency. Early last year, the USDA abruptly removed all inspection records from its website, only to replace many with heavily redacted versions. Announced inspections, critics say, would be akin to police calling a possible crime scene before arriving to investigate.
“It’s going to result in even fewer violations being detected,” Delcianna Winders, a vice president at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, said earlier this month. “Things are going to be cleaned up, suffering and dead animals are going to be hidden, and we’re just not going to know what the real, day-to-day conditions of the facilities are.”
APHIS did not advertise that it was weighing whether to allow announced inspections, and the pilot project was not identified in the Federal Register docket USDA opened on the prospect of weighing third-party inspections of animal welfare conditions. While Juarez’s letter said the pilot was targeted toward “certain situations involving certain facilities,” it did not clarify how those facilities would be selected.
As required by the Animal Welfare Act, the agency conducts inspections annually at research facilities and at least every three years at others, looking for proper enclosures, trimmed hoofs and clean drinking water, to name a few. The frequency of inspection depends on how well a facility has previously performed and other criteria the agency does not specify. (PETA sued the USDA in March over its failure to respond to a public records request for this information two years ago.)
At a public listening session in Santa Clara, Calif., in January, Juarez said third-party inspections — which might be carried out by voluntary accrediting organizations — would not replace government inspections. Instead, she said, the agency could rely on them to determine how often to inspect and whether an accredited facility “should receive a positive factor.”
“We may be able to kick out the frequency with which we visit those facilities so that we can conserve our resources and make more frequent visits to facilities that we know have compliance challenges,” she said. As examples of third-party accrediting organizations, she cited the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, and AAALAC.
The third-party proposal was opposed by animal protection groups, which cast it as a fox-guarding-the-henhouse idea. It also was strongly opposed by several facilities the USDA regulates.
The AZA, in a letter submitted to the agency as part of the public comment period, complained about the vagueness of the idea and said the current system “is working fairly effectively.” At a February listening session in Maryland, the Zoological Association of America expressed concern that it might be saddled with performing inspections. At a March listening session in Kansas City, Rodney Blosser of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association worried animal advocacy groups might be deployed as inspectors.
“I don’t like to see the third party come in if it’s going to be run by just the Humane Society or something like that,” Blosser said.
In a statement to The Washington Post, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s president, Mike Bober, noted “near-universal opposition to” the approach and encouraged the USDA to “continue researching the best way to use scarce public resources most effectively to ensure animal health and well-being.”
Yet the idea has been supported by the research community, which has long complained that a mishmash of regulations — some labs are overseen not just by the USDA but also by the National Institutes of Health and a university committee — is far too burdensome. That complaint gained traction in 2016 with the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, which ordered NIH to work with the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to reduce “administrative burden” on researchers.
In October, a coalition of scientific research groups issued a report recommending, among other things, that Congress reduce inspections to every three years and that the USDA consider AAALAC accreditation as a factor in its risk-based inspection system. In comments to the USDA, that coalition, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said 82 percent of USDA inspections at research facilities in fiscal 2017 were free of “noncompliant items,” or violations, and 84 percent of violations “did not pose a direct threat to animal welfare.”
“On some large campuses, a USDA visit can last anywhere from three to five days,” said J.R. Haywood, a vice president for research and graduate studies at Michigan State University who is a member of that coalition’s animals in research and education committee. “For those institutions that have great track records, is it a good use of resource on the part of USDA?”
At those sites, Haywood said, “it simply wouldn’t matter whether [inspections] are announced or unannounced,” and third-party assessments could be useful to the USDA.
Animal advocates like Winders counter that by pointing to a 2014 peer-reviewed study that found AAALAC-accredited facilities had higher rates of violations than unaccredited sites. She said she would support simplifying inspections for research facilities, but only by appointing a new agency to regulate them, because, she argued, the USDA and NIH are too lenient on those that violate animal welfare laws.