The USDA said in 2017 that it removed the reports and other records over concerns about due process and privacy rights of animal business owners. It later reposted some, but in heavily redacted form. Others were available only through Freedom of Information Act requests, which could take months or years to be fulfilled.
Over the past three years, animal welfare groups have filed several lawsuits aimed at forcing the agency to restore the records. They also lobbied Congress. In December, U.S. lawmakers passed a spending bill that ordered the USDA to bring back the searchable database and use it to publish various animal welfare records.
“The purge left Americans in the dark and was clearly an attempt to keep groups like ours from holding the USDA accountable,” Kitty Block, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, and Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, wrote in a blog post. They called it “an important win for animals, for American consumers, and for animal advocates who fought long and hard for this outcome.”
But the Humane Society and other animal welfare organizations emphasized that the USDA’s announcement Tuesday still left several kinds of records unpublished. The agency said it would take up to 60 days to post those documents, which include enforcement records, inventories of animals at individual facilities and “teachable moments.” The teachable moments note violations by facilities, such as insufficient drinking water or dirty cages, but do not count them as citations.
“We’re making use of what’s available now, and we’re holding our breath and waiting to see what will come within 60 days and ultimately how they will seek to interpret the language” of the spending bill, said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute.
The agency’s use of teachable moments has risen, and citations have dramatically declined, amid a Trump administration push to deregulate industry. Critics, including animal protection groups and former USDA animal welfare inspectors, say the approach puts animals at risk. The agency says it allows inspectors to help animal owners fix problems more quickly.
The removal of welfare records in 201teac was criticized even by some facilities regulated by the USDA, including the national chain Petland and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which argued that transparency gave the public more confidence in their operations.
But the purge was welcomed by others, such as the Tennessee walking horse industry, members of which had sued USDA over the publication of records they said sullied the names of horse owners before they had an opportunity to defend themselves. On Tuesday, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council echoed that.
“This is a positive move toward restoring transparency that will allow the regulated individuals and facilities to demonstrate that they are responsible and accountable animal caretakers,” its president and chief executive, Mike Bober, said. “We are concerned, however, that the database was restored in a way that offers no protection for the privacy of individual breeders.”