The USDA’s Data Purge: Who’s Actually Being Protected?

February 7, 2017

puppy mill

By Matt Bershadker, ASPCA CEO

Compassion and capitalism can coexist so long as legitimate watchdogs are working to ensure that societal standards of humanity are maintained for those without a voice. But on February 3, when the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reversed a decade-long commitment to transparency by removing critical inspection reports from its website, the system became severely unbalanced, putting hundreds of thousands of animals at risk.

This change—which was not communicated to major stakeholders until it was already completed—erased a searchable database of official Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and Horse Protection Act reports which reveal a facility’s welfare violations, and removed notices of enforcement actions taken against violators. Some of these violations, as described in the reports, resulted in horrific animal injuries.  

Advocates, consumers, and state governments have long relied on these reports to monitor individuals and businesses holding licenses under the AWA—including zoos, research facilities, and commercial dog breeders—and to enforce animal welfare standards. With these reports scrubbed, animal advocates will face extended delays and obstacles that may bring help too late—or not at all—for many suffering animals.

The ASPCA, for example, has used this published data to monitor the commercial dog breeding industry, alert legislators to the presence of unscrupulous breeders and animal cruelty, and educate the public on inhumane breeding conditions and regulatory limitations through its anti-puppy mills campaign.

The reports are also a cornerstone for state laws that rely on AWA records to prohibit pet stores from sourcing dogs from breeding facilities with documented violations. Hindering access to this information makes it nearly impossible for pet stores to comply with the laws, for authorities to successfully enforce them, and for consumers to know what they’re truly getting when they purchase dogs from pet stores.

The USDA now requires consumers and advocates to go through the cumbersome Freedom of Information (FOIA) request process which, even for experienced advocates, is complicated and can take months or even years to produce documents. Animals in need cannot and should not have to wait that long for action.

By obstructing access to this crucial data, the USDA removes critical protections from animals who need them most. And instead of helping ensure that animal mistreatment is swiftly identified and stopped—an important responsibility of the USDA—it actually provides abusers better cover.

Last month, I made a public request to Secretary of Agriculture Designee Sonny Perdue, asking him to prioritize the well-being of animals in need. For the sake of vulnerable dogs, horses, and other animals who deserve our protection, we implore the new leadership of USDA to reinstate transparency and restore the right balance in protecting hundreds of thousands of animals behind the walls of AWA-regulated facilities.

You can do your part by learning more about the issue, reaching out to your representatives, and signing this petition to urge the USDA to live up to its humane responsibilities.