The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) (the Agency) has proposed modifications to the existing system of records that would dramatically curtail transparency of the Agency’s activities and shield violators from public scrutiny. If successful, documents like this Covance inspection report will no longer be available to the public.

The change is stealthy; it is not overtly stated. This calls into question the Agency’s motivation for this change.

“Proposed Routine Use (3)” states: “APHIS may disclose inspection reports and other regulatory correspondence issued to licensees and registrants [from the agency] to any attending veterinarian in order to carry out duties under the AWA pursuant to 9 CFR 2.33 and 2.40;” That is a major deviation from past practice.

It should state clearly that “APHIS will also disclose inspection reports and other regulatory correspondence issued to licensees and registrants [from the agency] in response to public records requests.” There are currently adequate safeguards to protect privacy and trade secrets. Such information is now routinely redacted in records provided in response to requests in accord with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The volume of public records requests concerning the Agency’s oversight of animal welfare was probably the original reason for the creation of a public searchable electronic database containing inspection reports of all regulated entities. Over the years, industry lobbyists have complained about the results of the public’s access to these records.  As a result, apparently, the Agency has occasionally sought to block access to these records, has purged records from the database, and seemingly intentionally made it anything but user-friendly. The proposed change would seemingly strip those records from the database.

Public access to inspection reports has historically been the reason that violations of the Animal Welfare Act (the Act) have become public. The public has a compelling interest in knowing whether individuals and institutions breeding, selling, or using animals are in compliance with the Act.

It is worth noting that the Animal Welfare Act exists today because of public concern for animals and an interest in knowing that they are being protected. The USDA’s own Animal Welfare Information Center provides a brief history of the Act in an essay titled “Legislative History of the Animal Welfare Act: Introduction.” They explain:

Early events in the development of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 are very interesting and illustrate how a law gets proposed and eventually passed. Congress discussed laboratory animal welfare in the early 1960s, but there was not enough interest to pass legislation. The tipping point happened after very revealing articles on the procurement process for finding and delivering dogs for biomedical research appeared in two popular magazines—Life and Sports Illustrated. The articles stimulated such a public outcry that Congress eventually wrote and passed the first Laboratory Animal Welfare Act in 1966.

Clearly, public interest in the welfare of animals was and remains the reason for the Agency’s existence. The public has a compelling interest in knowing whether and to what degree the Agency is enforcing the Act. Blocking public access to APHIS inspection reports shields the violators, but it also shields the Agency from allegations of dereliction or special treatment of the regulated entities. See for instance: 12/18/2014 – Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Oversight of Research Facilities. (Report No. 33601-0001-41.)

If the Agency’s proposed change in Proposed Routine Use (3) is enacted, it will eliminate the public’s access to information about the care and use of animals regulated by the Act that was at the heart of the law’s enactment. This would be a travesty of the highest order.

Please consider call or writing to your U.S. Senators and Representative. Please consider commenting on the proposed rule change here: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/10/24/2019-23210/privacy-act-of-1974-system-of-records