USDA Message Sounds Good, but Will Its Practices Follow Suit?
In late April 2023, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the USDA agency responsible for oversight of animal businesses and farm animal health, released its five-year strategic plan [PDF] for 2023-2027. The ASPCA submitted comments on its draft proposal, urging the agency to keep animal welfare front and center in its animal programs and to steer its failed Animal Welfare Act enforcement program back on track.
In a first for the agency, the “strategic foresight” document [PDF] released with the plan recognizes an important societal trend—perceptions of what constitutes good animal welfare are evolving. More people agree that animals should have rights, adding public and Congressional pressure for APHIS to “prioritize the use of humane animal agriculture practices.” The ASPCA has recognized for years that Americans want all animals—including farm animals and dogs in the commercial breeding industry—to be treated with care and respect. This will require government agencies responsible for overseeing farms and animal businesses to step up and play a stronger role in ensuring animal welfare.
The APHIS foresight document even suggests that farms may become subject to Animal Welfare Act regulation in the future as perceptions of farm animals continue to evolve. Currently, no federal agency is tasked with oversight of the welfare of the almost 10 billion animals raised for food in the U.S. each year—allowing industrial animal agriculture corporations to purposefully keeps consumers in the dark. However, we remain concerned about what Animal Welfare Act regulation of farms would look like in practice, given APHIS's failure to enforce protections for animals already covered by the Animal Welfare Act.
We are particularly pleased to see APHIS suggest an important reform for farm animals that we’ve been advocating for—implementation of higher-welfare depopulation methods when necessitated by an emergency. Over the last several years, industrial producers with the assistance of the USDA have defaulted to the widespread use of inhumane depopulation methods such as inducing hyperthermia and heat stroke through ventilation shutdown, causing untold suffering to millions of farm animals. Despite the fact that the public strongly opposes these methods, the USDA spent more than $670 million of taxpayer dollars in just 13 months to support depopulation of flocks impacted by the ongoing avian flu outbreak. We applaud the agency for exploring more humane methods and look forward to seeing an implementation plan.
While this sounds good, it does not reflect the agency’s current attitude toward animal welfare. APHIS’s Animal Welfare Act enforcement program is in an abysmal state, with many animals suffering in facilities where the agency should and could have intervened based on long histories of observed violations.
Until we see concrete action from the agency to improve animal welfare, we need Congress to step in by enacting reforms such as Goldie’s Act and our farm animal platform [PDF] through the 2023 Farm Bill.