USDA Still Stonewalling on Access to Enforcement Records

After the public outcry regarding the US Department of Agriculture’s scrubbing of inspection records and other important enforcement documents from its website, the department began to restore selected records online. These included annual reports for research facilities and inspection reports for some registrants and licensees.

The bulk of the data remains missing, however. The USDA has not posted a single enforcement record (e.g., warning letter, stipulated penalty, or complaint) since August 2016. Also remaining offline are about two-thirds of the inspection reports that the USDA says “may contain personal information implicating the privacy interests of individuals and closely-held businesses.” These pertain to thousands of regulated entities (breeders, dealers, exhibitors, and others licensed or registered under the Animal Welfare Act).

This withholding appears to be related to the department’s questionable interpretation of the Privacy Act—an interpretation asserted by the plaintiffs in Contender Farms v. USDA. (See AWI Quarterly, spring 2017.) The USDA, in capitulation to the walking horse industry, appears to have adopted this argument as a rationale for pulling the records from its website—and is stonewalling the public regarding this decision. When BuzzFeed, which consulted with AWI for an April 28 story on the issue, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records pertaining to the site scrub, the USDA provided 1,771 pages of records with every single page completely blacked out—all information redacted.

Puppy mills, which came under scrutiny in a scathing 2010 report by the USDA Office of the Inspector General concerning lax enforcement against problematic dealers, are benefiting from this data scrub: Various states rely on the USDA inspection reports to carry out their own enforcement actions. Without the records, their efforts are thwarted.

The USDA claimed in February that the site scrub was part of its “commitment to being transparent”—a patently ridiculous statement. AWI will continue to fight for greater accountability, not only from the USDA but also from those who believe they can now abuse animals in secret.