The USDA reached an astonishingly weak settlement on December 2, 2016, with SNBL USA, an animal dealer and registered research facility—despite allegations of egregious violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) by the company dating back to 2002. (See AWI Quarterly, winter 2016.) The settlement includes the following provisions:
A tiny 30-day suspension of SNBL’s dealer license; the license will be restored after SNBL demonstrates compliance through announced USDA inspections
A $185,000 fine, representing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of SNBL’s parent company’s nearly $200 million value
An order for SNBL to cease and desist from violating the AWA
Although this is a huge setback for AWA enforcement, AWI was not surprised by the outcome. An indication that the USDA was rolling over came when the department filed a motion to seal on November 4 that asked the court to redact crucial information included in the department’s own complaint. This was odd, given that AWI had already received the full unredacted complaint from the USDA’s own Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office—there being no FOIA exemptions to justify any redactions—and it had been posted on our website and that of media outlets. This motion to seal was something that the USDA should have fought, not filed. Despite this motion’s clear violation of FOIA, the judge granted it on November 15.
On November 21, daily logs concerning the case were removed from the hearing clerk’s website. When AWI called to ask why, a staffer said that the judge presiding over the SNBL case had ordered them removed. When AWI asked how the public would know what has been filed, the staffer replied, “the public won’t know.” The USDA’s own regulation states that records in formal adjudicatory proceedings filed with the hearing clerk “shall be made available to the public.”
The USDA’s action was even more shocking, given the many grim findings from a November 1 inspection. Among them:
- There were multiple violations for failure to provide appropriate or complete methods of euthanasia.
- SNBL placed two infant monkeys with the wrong mothers following infant handling training, resulting in the death of one of the infants.
- Another monkey died from “apparent asphyxiation” when a chain from a feeding device wrapped around his neck.
Inspectors also witnessed multiple instances of monkeys exhibiting stereotypical behavior (indicative of stress).
The outcome of the SNBL case pales in comparison to the settlement agreement reached in May 2016 against Santa Cruz Biotechnology (SCBT)—another huge dealer/research facility that was accused of numerous serious AWA violations dating back to 2002. (See AWI Quarterly, summer 2016.) The unprecedented settlement agreement in the SCBT case resulted in the cancellation of the facility’s research registration, revocation of its dealer license, and payment of a historic $3.5 million civil penalty.
The SNBL case, in contrast, harkens back to the dark decades of ineffectual enforcement, repeatedly documented by the Office of Inspector General. Despite significant obstacles, AWI worked for years to help ensure proper enforcement against SCBT. We will continue to apply pressure to assure not only transparency and public disclosure at the USDA, but also to relegate the likes of this SNBL debacle to the dustbin of history.