USDA’s New Proposal May Do More Harm Than Good

March 22, 2019

On Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed much-needed revisions to requirements for protecting animals in Animal Welfare Act (AWA)-regulated facilities like commercial puppy-breeding facilities and zoos. While the proposal addresses certain critical issues like lack of access to basic veterinary care and has the potential to prevent violators of animal cruelty laws from running animal businesses, the proposal cements harmful practices that shield agency actions from public view. 

Specifically, we are alarmed that these revisions—which are intended to crack down on businesses that aren’t properly caring for animals—would allow the USDA to stop publishing the names of persons licensed under the AWA. The USDA currently faces multiple lawsuits, including one brought by the ASPCA, challenging the agency’s recently adopted policy of withholding and redacting information related to USDA oversight of AWA-licensed businesses in violation of the Freedom of Information Act. This proposed change would not only continue a troubling pattern of the USDA withholding information from the public, but also appears to be an attempt by the agency to do away with its legal obligation to provide this information in response to these lawsuits. 

Even changes that appear beneficial—such as taking the obvious step to prevent individuals whose USDA licenses have been revoked from operating the same business under another name—will probably not have a meaningful impact. We believe that the bipartisan Welfare of Our Friends (WOOF) Act, introduced by U.S. Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Charlie Crist (D-FL), would address this problem more comprehensively by making it harder for animal welfare offenders to continue to operate an animal business. 

Perhaps more importantly: For any proposed fixes to be meaningful, the USDA must be committed to enforcing the AWA. Yet the agency has a history of the exact opposite behavior. Additionally, the agency must be accountable to the American public by sharing its actions openly—another area where it is failing. 

Over the past two years in particular, we have seen shifts in USDA policies and practices that dramatically—and disastrously—affect animals. The USDA consistently fails to cite businesses that violate standards of care, and its volume of overall enforcement actions has plummeted.  We have also witnessed an unprecedented effort to hide acts of cruelty in commercial breeding facilities. In February 2017, the agency scrubbed tens of thousands of animal welfare records from its publicly accessible website. It further ignored directions from Congress to restore these vital records multiple times and instead implemented secretive programs to “increase compliance” at these facilities.

To learn more about the very minimal animal care standards currently required of USDA-licensed puppy breeders, visit our Barred From Love page. In the coming days, we will look closely at this proposed rule and ask advocates to communicate concerns to the USDA. Please join the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade to be alerted when it's time to take action!