BEYOND DOG BY DOG: The USDA’s Animal Health Inspection Program Under New Management

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August 15, 2017

At the USDA Western Regional Office for Animal Care, an official summed up the USDA’s Animal Health Inspection Program as one “lacking direction. Inspections are down year to year by over 20% in this region. We have vacancies at all levels and zero prioritization from leadership in D.C.” Sources at the USDA Headquarters in Riverdale, MD and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry generally reiterated these concerns over the direction of the Inspection Program.

One official at USDA Headquarters noted, “We are within the legal requirements of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), but inspections of commercial breeders are down across the board.” [The only inspection requirement mandated by the AWA is the yearly inspection of registered animal research facilities. While many other animals exhibited to the public, transported commercially, or bred for commercial sale, including dog breeding facilities are mentioned in the AWA, the law’s only legislatively mandated inspection requirement is facilities involved in medical research.] Current USDA officials and staff associated with the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the ongoing direction and activities of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Program (APHIS).

In DOG BY DOG we highlighted the lack of funding and effectiveness of the APHIS inspection program under the leadership of Secretary Tom Vilsack at USDA in the Obama Administration. While adding an important, but massive new category (internet sales) to the workload of inspectors on the ground, the former administration added no additional funding to provided for new inspectors to meet the need of inspecting additional facilities. As we noted in DOG BY DOG, the APHIS inspection program is overworked, underfunded, and failing to meet the clear intentions at the heart of the Animal Welfare Act: To protect animals. Interviews with current USDA officials and internal emails provided to DOG BY DOG shows overwhelming indictions that inspections of commercial dog breeders is not a priority, but limiting public disclosure of AWA records has become one.

– An internal USDA APHIS email provided to DOG BY DOG confirms: “Inspection reports becoming publicly available, even in a redacted format, is not going to happen without a Freedom of Information Act request.” Citing the “privacy concerns” of large-scale commercial breeders for the abrupt removal of inspection records from public disclosure, the APHIS has made the determination that only cases that have been “fully reviewed and adjudicated” will be publicly available without a Freedom of Information Act request. In Science magazine, Delcianna Winders, Academic Fellow with the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Program, highlights the the problems with this change in policy. Dr. Winders says a very small percentage of the documents in the original public database were actually adjudicated and that issuing warnings is the USDA’s primary means of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. In 2016, according to Winders, more than 80 percent of USDA enforcement actions were warnings. To re-post only records that have been fully adjudicated would mean shrouding the bulk of violations and enforcement actions in secrecy.

Source: Lawsuit aims to force USDA to repost scrubbed animal welfare records

– Confirmed by three USDA officials, inspection frequencies of facilities not explicitly covered by AWA are down by between 15% and 20% year to year. Since commercial and internet dog breeders are not explicitly covered by AWA, it is clear that inspections of these facilities are not a priority. Under USDA Secretary Vilsack, the APHIS had a long track-record of relying on “letters of warning” as the primary deterrent option. The key difference since the recent change in USDA leadership is the removal of APHIS inspection reports from the internet. In all cases, a letter of warning would have been precipitated by a negative public inspection report. Since the USDA is seemingly unwilling to actually prosecute / adjudicate cases by relying on “letters of warning,” and without the availability to the public of commercial breeders inspection reports, the industry is then protected from public scrutiny.

– Since May 2017, shockingly and for no apparent reason, the USDA Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ) stopped posting adjudications of the Animal Welfare Act online. For the past twelve years, the USDA OALJ has routinely posted decisions within weeks of a decision for public consummation. DOG BY DOG was unable to confirm “why” the delay in the posting of adjudicated cases concerning the Animal Welfare Act. Even if one believes “privacy concerns” warrant withholding inspection reports of commercial breeders from the public, there is no legitimate reasons to withhold cases that have been decided.

We produced DOG BY DOG when Secretary Vilsack and the Obama Administration were running the USDA. While respecting the change in policy to include internet dog sales under the inspection umbrella of the AWA, we were highly critical of the USDA leadership in the film for failing to budget for the requirements the policy change needed. Since the advent of the internet, there is a direct correlation between access to USDA inspection reports and the public movement against puppy mills. Access to these records provided actual evidence of a the problem that many assumed, but had a hard time articulating outside of anecdotal evidence. With access to records, the USDA was providing ammunition to those fighting against the worst puppy mills that held a USDA license. These records were never the sum of the problem considering the unlicensed breeders, but it was a way to articulate a massive problem. The decision by the USDA to pull basically all records concerning commercial dog breeders without a Freedom of Information request is literally a nightmare for the dogs trapped in mills. Transparency must be demanded.

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