Compelled by Congress, USDA Begins Restoring Database of Animal Welfare Records

February 20, 2020

Dogs in cages

  • In 2017, the USDA purged tens of thousands of animal welfare records from its public database.
  • At the end of last year, Congress passed a law requiring the USDA to restore records by February 18, 2020, and post inspection reports and enforcement records moving forward.
  • The agency partially complied, but the suppression of these records was just one part of a much larger problem.
  • Over the past three years, the USDA has repeatedly catered to animal businesses and undermined animal welfare by refusing to take enforcement actions against Animal Welfare Act violators.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) abruptly purged tens of thousands of records related to the inspection of commercial dog breeders, zoos and research institutions and, for the past three years, continued to block public access to these animal welfare records.

Bolstered by the tireless work of advocates and supporters of both animal welfare and government transparency, in December 2019 the ASPCA lobbied Congress to pass a law requiring the USDA to restore the animal welfare records and to post complete inspection reports and enforcement records moving forward.

On February 18, 2020, the deadline to comply with the Congressional directive, the agency removed redactions on thousands of inspection reports and restored reports dating back to 2014 to its website. It has not yet posted the required enforcement records and has failed to restore much of the functionality from the earlier database.

Now that partial transparency has been restored, it is critical that the information contained in these documents—along with information that still remains inaccessible—is used to hold the USDA accountable for its failure to protect the hundreds of thousands of animals across the U.S. who live in commercial facilities.

The suppression of these records was part of a calculated effort by the USDA to rollback, water down and weaken regulations, policies and practices intended to ensure the humane care of animals. During the same period of time the USDA was fighting to keep these records hidden, it began making frequent changes to its guidelines and procedures, emphasizing education and deference to “customers” over actual enforcement. USDA also began relying on warnings and incentive programs that allow licensees to avoid documentation of violations on inspection reports. Comparing the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of 2019, the total number of violations dramatically dropped by nearly half, from 717 to 405 violations.

Despite ample records that describe such violations as failure to provide veterinary care, caged dogs kept outdoors in freezing temperatures, weeks old puppies with visible ribs, dogs with open wounds, dogs with foot injuries from standing on wire cages, dogs with severe mats, breeding dogs dying after delivering puppies, dogs fed food contaminated by rodents and dogs living in cages covered in feces and other horrific treatment, the USDA says more than 96% of their facilities are “substantially” compliant. In 2018, the agency opened only 19 enforcement cases—that is, actions to punish violators—and 17 in 2019, a decline of over 90% compared to 2016.

USDA is currently failing to issue even low-level enforcement actions, such as official warning letters. In 2016, the agency issued over 150 official warnings; in 2019 it issued two. Over the past two years, the agency has revoked the licenses of only five dog breeders or dealers.

If the reposting of these records represents a turnaround at the USDA, we look forward to additional signs that the agency understands its obligation to protect vulnerable animals in commercial breeding facilities, zoos and research institutions, and not the businesses that profit off them. Until then, the ASPCA will continue to advocate for changes at the federal level, work through the courts to hold the agency and those that violate existing laws accountable, and work with our partners at the state and local levels to prevent the cruel practices tolerated by the USDA from affecting their communities.