ASPCA Files Federal Lawsuit Against USDA for Failure to Respond to FOIA Requests for Animal Welfare Records

USDA has failed to respond to nearly 40 FOIA requests from the ASPCA since 2016, endangering the welfare of animals
April 9, 2019

NEW YORK—The ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), with the assistance of Cooley LLP, today filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for their failure to respond to nearly 40 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and appeals that the ASPCA has filed with the agencies since 2016. These include requests for inspection and enforcement records relating to commercial dog breeders licensed by the USDA. In addition to educating the public on the inhumane conditions commonly found at USDA-licensed dog breeding facilities, these inspection reports have served as a vital tool for monitoring the USDA’s historically dismal administration and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

From February 2016 to late 2018, the ASPCA submitted nearly 40 FOIA requests to the USDA that have not received a response. The agency confirmed receipt of these requests and provided a target date for the response, but in each case, the agency failed to respond at all, making these requests months, and in many cases, years overdue.

“By withholding these records from both the ASPCA and the public, the UDSA is impeding our efforts to prevent animal suffering,” said Robert Hensley, Legal Advocacy Senior Counsel for the ASPCA. “Unless challenged, the USDA will continue its policy and practice of disregarding its obligations under the FOIA, making it impossible for the public to know which facilities are operating in violation of federal laws and whether the USDA has taken any action in response. The USDA’s secrecy and lack of accountability continues to endanger the welfare of the dogs currently languishing in puppy mills.”

Inspection and enforcement records had been published on USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) public website for years, but in February 2017, the USDA abruptly removed thousands of documents related to the inspection of facilities licensed under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), including commercial dog breeders, zoos and research labs. Despite several attempts by lawmakers and animal welfare groups, including the ASPCA, this critical information is still largely missing, and the USDA’s backlog for FOIA requests continues to grow, resulting in crippling wait times.

“While the USDA has publicly claimed that these records are still obtainable through the FOIA process, the USDA’s failure to acknowledge the ASPCA’s repeated requests for information proves that, in practice, this is not the case,” said Hensley. “On the limited occasions when the USDA has responded to the ASPCA’s requests, the agency has provided records that are heavily and inconsistently redacted.”

Last May, the ASPCA filed a federal lawsuit against the USDA in response to its ongoing refusal to respond to administrative appeals as required by law and for its failure to release crucial animal welfare records in their entirety. As that case moves forward, the ASPCA will continue to press the agency for greater transparency and accountability as we push to regain access to these important animal welfare records.

The ASPCA Legal Advocacy department focuses on increasing legal protections for animals across the country and shaping stronger animal welfare laws through the judicial system. The ASPCA’s Barred From Love campaign urges the public to speak out against cruel breeding and also encourages dog lovers to adopt from a local shelter or rescue group or learn how to identify a responsible breeder.

For more information on the ASPCA’s efforts to protect dogs in commercial breeding facilities, visit