Major Newspaper Exposes USDA’s Failure to Protect Animals

August 23, 2019

a dog in a dirty cage

USDA Inspection Photo, March 2019

Update—August 28, 2019: Read this letter from Matt Bershadker, ASPCA President & CEO, in response to The Washington Post’s article on the USDA’s failure to responsibly protect animals.

Yesterday, The Washington Post published a scathing exposé of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) weak enforcement of animal welfare laws, including the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The article highlights disturbing examples of USDA’s declining enforcement at AWA-licensed facilities, as well as at horse shows, where USDA inspectors are charged with enforcing the Horse Protection Act (HPA). The article even points to industry and USDA senior officials’ interference in serious enforcement actions.

One tragic example the article provides is a July 2017 incident involving a notoriously problematic USDA-licensed facility, Ruby Fur Farm, in Iowa. This facility had years of violations including “ill and injured” animals, “feces in living spaces” and live animals kept in cages with dead ones, as explained in the article.

On the day of the inspection, the facility housed around 300 raccoons confined in stacked cages inside a metal barn where the temperature rose to 100 degrees. After “three reports over three days,” a USDA inspector observed 26 raccoons suffering from severe heat stress and a team of USDA veterinarians took the unusual step of confiscating 10 of the suffering animals. However, according to the Washington Post article, after an industry group appealed to the White House and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, then Deputy Administrator Bernadette Juarez—an attorney, not a veterinarian—intervened and veterinarians were ordered to return the distressed animals. 

The USDA later used this incident to tout its new industry-friendly approach aimed at educating licensees instead of enforcing the law—even when animals are in severe distress. In August 2017, the ASPCA submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the USDA for documents related to this incident. Ultimately, the ASPCA had to file a lawsuit to obtain these records, yet to date, the agency is still withholding records from us.

The Washington Post article comes on the heels of the agency's 2018 Impact Report[PDF], which was released a few days ago despite the information being over a year old. The report asserts that 91% of AWA licensees and registrants were in compliance. It also documents a steep decline of AWA enforcement in 2018, a continuation of an alarming trend over the past few years. Out of over 10,000 inspections conducted in 2018, USDA investigated only 19 alleged AWA violations (less than 0.19% overall). 

The 2018 report doesn’t tell the whole story. 

We believe that the reported compliance rate is misleading. As clearly illustrated in the Washington Post article, the USDA has adopted policies that have severely eroded AWA enforcement. USDA leadership now instructs inspectors to treat the regulated licensees as “customers” with a focus on education over enforcement, which is the exact opposite of what the Office of the Inspector General recommended in a 2010 Audit that found “major deficiencies” with its enforcement of the AWA. Concerning violations of the AWA, the USDA now uses “teachable moments” that serve as mere warnings, replacing enforcement of sometimes serious violations that threaten animal health. Adding to the USDA’s lack of transparency, these warnings are not documented on publicly available inspection reports, but instead on separate, internal records. 

Also, USDA recently conducted a pilot program to test “announced inspections” where puppy mill operators and other licensees were notified of exactly when an inspector would be on site. USDA’s departure from purely unannounced inspections provides a troubling opportunity for breeders to cover up potential animal welfare violations. These policy shifts are just two examples reflecting an agency culture that discourages enforcement and gives the “customer” every advantage. 

A full two-and-a-half years since the USDA unexpectedly purged tens of thousands of AWA inspection reports and enforcement records from its website, the public is still in the dark. The ASPCA has filed two lawsuits challenging USDA’s failure to respond to our requests for these documents as required by law and its failure to release these crucial animal welfare records in their entirety. If 91% of licensees are truly in compliance with the law, then why does USDA continue to withhold critical animal welfare records from the public? 

The AWA was signed into law on August 24, 1966. The most meaningful way to observe the 53rd anniversary of this law is to demand that the USDA fulfill its mandate to uphold and enforce its minimum animal care standards. Congress has the power to restore the agency’s public accountability by demanding that it republish its online database of inspection reports. Please contact your U.S. senators today and urge them to ensure that the USDA’s transparency lapses are addressed in the Fiscal Year 2020 Appropriations bill.