AWI Sheds Further Light on USDA Site Scrub

AWI’s latest analysis of the enormous number of vital animal welfare records still missing from the US Department of Agriculture’s website reveals that, following the Contender Farms v. USDA lawsuit involving plaintiffs associated with the Tennessee Walking Horse industry (see AWI Quarterly, spring 2017), the USDA still has not restored inspection reports covering 94 percent of the 3,333 active breeders and dealers that supply animals to the pet trade and, in some cases, research labs.

On May 26, Science magazine published an article based largely on this analysis, conducted by AWI’s Eric Kleiman. He also provided Science with two primary examples of the USDA removing records pertaining to well-established suppliers to research: Thomas D. Morris Inc. and Eugene Burkholder. Both are routinely listed on lab animal supplier sites, and both have been accused by the USDA of violating the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

On September 16, 2013, the USDA issued an official warning letter to Thomas D. Morris Inc., a Maryland animal dealer that sells to US government and academic scientists. During July and August 2013, inspectors alleged failures to provide adequate veterinary care and shelter from inclement weather, noting 15 unshorn sheep penned in a sweltering building, a group of calves and sheep with no shelter at all, a goat and a lamb that were lame, and another goat with an egg-sized swelling on his shoulder. The USDA warned the firm (which had $5 million in revenue that year) that future violations could result in fines or criminal prosecution.

On October 2, 2015, the USDA issued a warning letter to Eugene Burkholder, an individually licensed breeder who does business as Oak Hill Genetics, which also supplies animals to US government and academic scientists. Burkholder has stated that his operation produces 500 newborn pigs each week. Six separate inspections in 2014 and 2015 alleged that Burkholder failed to provide adequate veterinary care, observe animals daily, assess their well-being, and communicate animal health problems to a veterinarian. Inspectors reported observing a pig with a bloody tail stump; mother pigs with leg injuries; multiple piglets with facial injuries, open sores, and thick brown crust on their faces; and numerous animals with abscesses, including one that had ruptured.

Why is the USDA so blatantly hiding its rationale for scrubbing the site—even going so far as to completely black out 1,771 pages of relevant records requested by media organizations? (See AWI Quarterly, summer 2017.) Last August, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) stated that the searchable database “has been a valuable resource for thousands of people.” Six months later, the USDA eradicated the database. In April, the head of APHIS filed an affidavit with a California court expressing concern that the previously online records might “contain personal information implicating the privacy interests of individuals and closely held businesses.” According to the IRS, however, over 90 percent of businesses in the United States are closely held.

A May 19 APHIS bulletin indicated that the department continues to withhold “inspection reports for regulated entities licensed/registered as individuals or homestead businesses.” What is a homestead business? APHIS doesn’t say. Would Thomas D. Morris Inc. and Eugene Burkholder—who have received over $4.4 million in direct government contracts to supply research animals to various federal agencies over the past 10 years—qualify?

AWI’s analysis of what still remains offline points to another huge issue: missing inspections of puppy mills/commercial dog breeders. In April, the Associated Press published an article regarding the site scrub’s key ramifications for consumers wishing to determine if dogs bred in Missouri are coming from “humane dog breeders or callous operators of ‘puppy mills.’” As the AP reported, “Missouri farms raise an outsized share of the country’s dogs, selling more than 100,000 a year.” Of the 706 breeders the USDA lists as active in Missouri, inspection reports for just five are currently online.

The USDA has also failed to include animal inventories with its inspection updates for the last few months. After its initial upload of inspection reports, the department has withheld inventories in subsequent updates, carefully stating that “information regarding” animal inventories will at some point be restored. This “information regarding” language could mean that actual inventories may never be online.

The importance of these inventories cannot be overstated. The unexplained disappearance of over 5,000 goats and rabbits from Santa Cruz Biotechnology (SCBT)—after a series of adverse inspections and formal complaints involving goats and rabbits at SCBT—was documented in a January 2016 inspection. This resulted in a February 19, 2016, Nature article that AWI believes profoundly affected the USDA’s groundbreaking case against the lab. (See AWI Quarterly, spring 2016.)

In the past, the USDA issued press releases touting its enforcement actions relating to both the AWA and the Horse Protection Act, naming individuals as well as businesses and providing the records of actions taken. The USDA issued the last such release on August 16, 2016.

The Contender plaintiffs ended up dismissing their own lawsuit. Small wonder. One of the plaintiffs stated they felt it was “best to dismiss the complaint” since “we have achieved the primary objectives in the lawsuit.”

For its own part, the USDA, while claiming on February 7 that it was “vigorously defending” against “this litigation” (without directly naming the Contender lawsuit), never even filed an answer in the lawsuit. Moreover, despite no court order, decision, or settlement, the USDA stopped posting enforcement actions in August 2016 and completely scrubbed its website of inspection reports and other animal welfare records in February 2017. Yet, other agencies—including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration—routinely publish information about companies and individuals who are alleged to have violated federal law. FDA warning letters online are archived back to 2005.

Though the USDA has repeatedly given lip service to “transparency,” its actions constitute the exact opposite—continuing to hide crucial records and thumbing its nose at accountability and the law. AWI will continue to fight for release of these enforcement actions, inspections, and inventories that have proved so vital in both pressuring the USDA to enforce the AWA and sending the message to potential violators that animal abuse will not be tolerated or hidden.

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