August 10, 2018

USDA Enforcement of Animal Welfare Act Hits a New Low

A recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) update on the agency’s enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) reveals a steep decline in disciplinary actions taken against commercial breeders this year.

The AWA sets minimum standards of care for animals bred in U.S. commercial facilities, including puppy mills. When commercial breeders violate these standards, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for initiating enforcement actions against the licensee. The USDA can issue official warnings, assess fines and even refer the case for criminal prosecution. But the numbers from this recent report suggest that APHIS is failing its duty to protect vulnerable animals from harm.

Puppy in cage

Photo from USDA Inspection Report.

From October 2015 through September 2016, the agency initiated 239 cases under the AWA. Yet from October 2017 through June 2018, a nine-month window, the agency initiated only 15 cases. The report also reveals a drastic decrease in all other enforcement actions. Just two years ago the USDA assessed $4 million in penalties versus $163,000 so far this year.

So what has changed? Funding for AWA enforcement hasn’t decreased significantly, and it is improbable that breeders known for repeat violations have suddenly cleaned up their act to meet the AWA’s minimal standards. Most likely, a lack of enforcement is to blame.

In 2010, an audit conducted by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) found USDA enforcement shockingly inadequate. According to the report, many inspectors took little or no action against violators, failed to properly cite violations and sometimes reported serious direct violations (e.g., tick infestations on dogs, cockroach-infested food, excessive build-up of animal waste) as indirect violations. In response to the OIG report, APHIS committed to improving its enforcement practices; however, the agency’s own records during the past eight years contradict that commitment.  

The recent USDA enforcement update provides compelling evidence of the need for a follow-up OIG audit. In fact, it has bipartisan support from Congress: U.S. Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) have jointly requested that updated report from the agency.

Puppy mill

Photo from USDA Inspection Report.

While enforcement of the AWA has always been notoriously weak, it now appears to be at an all-time low. In prior years, the ASPCA would have been able to review the USDA’s database of animal facility inspection reports to see if the USDA was doing its job. Since February 2017, however, the agency’s unfortunate decision to purge its database of meaningful information has made verification of enforcement actions impossible.

Lack of enforcement plus lack of transparency adds up to a terrible situation for dogs in cruel breeding facilities. The ASPCA is determined to increase enforcement of the AWA and restore the USDA’s database of AWA breeder violation records, but we need your help. Please stand up for puppy mill dogs by signing our petition demanding the USDA restore full access to animal welfare information.