May 23, 2018

Blackout Update: ASPCA Sues U.S. Government for Suppressing Animal Welfare Records

In February 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suddenly removed tens of thousands of animal welfare records from its publicly accessible website. These documents described violations at federally licensed animal facilities—including commercial dog breeders, zoos and research labs—and any resulting enforcement actions taken by the USDA. Without access to these records it is impossible to learn which facilities are failing to comply with animal-protection laws.

Likely to quell pressure from Congress and the public in the year since the information “blackout,” the USDA has produced a trickle of website updates. But the records it now shares are heavily redacted and remain devoid of enforcement records. 

“The USDA is choosing to protect those who profit from animal suffering over the animals themselves,” said Robert Hensley, Legal Advocacy Senior Counsel for the ASPCA.

The agency has continually assured the public that its animal welfare records are still available via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. However, the USDA’s responses to our requests strongly contradict this promise. The agency either ignores them completely, takes months or years to reply or claims that the requested records—many of which were previously available on the public website—are exempt from disclosure.

The agency’s responses to our requests for dog breeder inspection photographs, reports and enforcement actions have all had relevant information redacted, including the names of the facilities and inspection dates. In more than one case, the entire inspection report was blacked out. 

Examples of redacted inspection reports.

Today, the ASPCA filed a lawsuit against the USDA in response to the agency’s ongoing refusal to respond to our requests as required by law and failure to release crucial animal welfare records in their entirety. 

“The USDA’s delays and deliberate omissions in making these records accessible severely hamper our efforts to advocate for dogs languishing in deplorable puppy mills,” said Matt Bershadker, President and CEO of the ASPCA. “The ASPCA’s lawsuit is crucial to preserve the FOIA process and gain access to these government records, which is critical to protecting animal welfare.”

Why is the USDA protecting cruel breeders over the animals and consumers it is entrusted to protect? Please sign our petition demanding the agency give back public access to this life-saving information.