AWI Sues USDA to Force Online Disclosure of Records

On August 23, AWI and Farm Sanctuary sued the US Department of Agriculture for failing to adequately respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking for proactive disclosure of slaughter records. The lawsuit is based on a 2016 amendment to FOIA that requires federal agencies to proactively post records that are subject to frequent requests.

The suit, filed in the US District Court for the Western District of New York, asks the USDA to post records online relating to the enforcement of two laws dating to the 1950s—the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. These records give AWI and other advocates a rare look at what is happening inside slaughterhouses across the country. Some records expose inhumane treatment of animals at slaughter plants, including incidents of workers throwing, stomping on, kicking, and punching chickens; workers improperly stunning pigs and cattle; and transporters abandoning trucks full of animals for hours in extremely hot or cold weather.

These enforcement documents are critical to improving the treatment of the billions of animals killed for human consumption every year. AWI reviews over a thousand of these records annually to monitor the USDA’s enforcement of the laws. We produce reports, action alerts, and policy recommendations based on our analysis of these records. When we are able to access these records in a timely manner, we can contact the media to expose conditions at plants where violations are frequent or extreme. In some cases, exposure of these conditions prompts the industry to take corrective measures, such as implementing more robust animal handling plans and removing workers that intentionally harm animals. Finally, the records are also of considerable interest to the public, which is becoming ever more vocal and engaged concerning the treatment of farm animals.

As part of its defense to AWI and Farm Sanctuary’s lawsuit, the USDA asserted that court decisions preclude it from making proactive disclosures to the general public. We disagree with this narrow and illogical reading of FOIA. When Congress passed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, it codified what many people call the “rule of three.” This provision requires agencies to “make available for public inspection in electronic format” records requested three or more times or records it finds are likely to be the subject of frequent requests. AWI and other animal advocacy organizations have requested these records time and time again and have been forced to wait months or even years for disclosure. The rule of three is a perfect solution to the time-consuming, labor-intensive process of FOIA: If the USDA made these records promptly and publicly available online, advocates would not need to spend time requesting the documents and waiting for an overwhelmed FOIA officer to fulfill requests.

The lawsuit is in its early stages. AWI will continue to update our members on its progress.

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