PETA to sue USDA for animal welfare records

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is preparing to sue the US Department of Agriculture and the Animal Health Inspection Service to obtain records of Animal Welfare Act enforcement actions, CNN has learned.

PETA says Freedom of Information Act requests for these records submitted between December 2016 and December 2017 have gone unanswered.

The complaint states in February 2017, the USDA abruptly removed from its website thousands of Animal Welfare Act-related records, including all enforcement records. Delcianna Winders, vice president and deputy general Counsel for the PETA Foundation told CNN, “while the agency has resumed posting some Animal Welfare Act records, it announced that it will not repost enforcement records, and has instead directed those interested in accessing these critical records to submit individual FOIA requests.”

PETA says it intends to file the suit Thursday. CNN reached out to the Department of Agriculture about the pending suit and the agency has not yet responded.

Recently a GOP congressman demanded answers from the Department of Agriculture about taxpayer-funded research experiments at a Maryland facility that have allegedly led to the deaths of hundreds of cats and kittens.

Citing documents reviewed by his office, Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Bishop described a decades-old research project at the USDA’s Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, in which hundreds of kittens are bred, fed meat that is infected with Toxoplasma, and later killed and discarded by “incineration.”

PETA says this is the first lawsuit to challenge the USDA’s failure to respond to FOIA requests for Animal Welfare Act enforcement records. The organization says the disclosure of the records “is especially important in light of the agency’s longstanding and well-documented failure to meaningfully enforcement the Animal Welfare Act, as repeatedly found by its own Office of Inspector General.”

The lawsuit highlights a 2010 USDA Office of Inspector General audit found that Animal Welfare Act enforcement was “ineffective” and penalties for violators were inappropriately reduced. As a result the IG found violators considered the penalties “as a normal cost of business rather than a deterrent for violating the law.”

The lawsuit states since these audits, the USDA “appears to have further weakened, rather than strengthened, its enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.” The lawsuit pointing to government data that shows in fiscal year 2016 the USDA’s Animal Health and Inspection Service brought a total of 252 enforcement actions, while in fiscal year 2017 this total “significantly dropped — by nearly a third — to 173.” The lawsuits says in 2018 the agency continues to issue “mere warnings in the vast majority of cases and persists in severely discounting penalties.”

The enforcement reports are for government-funded and government-run labs as well as private labs, exhibitors (circuses, zoos, etc.), and breeders and dealers for labs, exhibition and the wholesale pet trade (puppy mills, etc.).

“I think there are two interrelated things underlying this new secrecy,” Winders told CNN. “An overt push by the agency to move away from regulating and enforcing and instead toward treating regulated entities as clients to whom they provide services.”

Winders also said she believes USDA’s resistance in disclosing the records is an effort to mask “the agency’s failure to meaningfully enforce the Animal Welfare Act.”