Roughly two weeks into the Trump Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency has removed all inspection reports and enforcement records from its website in a move that has drawn criticism from government transparency and animal-welfare activists. The agency, which is responsible for ensuring that animals are treated humanely in all commercial facilities in the country - laboratories, zoos, factory farms and breeders, said in a statement on its website that the decision to do this was a result of the USDA’s “commitment to being transparent, remaining responsive to our stakeholders…”.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is directly responsible for overseeing the agency’s online database, justified taking the data offline citing that its public availability was a threat to individuals’ right to privacy. The validity of this reasoning is what critics are questioning. Previously released reports and documents have always had sensitive information redacted, and more so commercial establishments cannot stake privacy claims in the same way private citizens do.
Speaking on the USDA’s action, Dan Ashe, the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and current head of Association of Zoos and Aquariums asserted the stance most critics are taking. He stated that the American public has a right to that information to know where their taxes go and that the action “erodes public confidence, because when people see something like that, they're inclined, rightfully, to think that the government is trying to shield something from their view.”
In a statement, the spokesperson for USDA’s APHIS, Tanya Espinosa, backed the agency’s decision saying that it would not interfere with their enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. In her statement, Ms. Espinosa did not specify what information exactly in these documents was being protected due to privacy concerns.
She added that the records will still be available on request through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process, although these would be redacted versions.
Critics and animal-welfare groups remain skeptic about the privacy argument in withholding what they consider important information from the public. According to Justin Goodman, vice-president of the DC-based White Coat Waste Project, “Claiming privacy’ is a smokescreen to unjustifiably evade critical transparency about government operations.”
Impact on journalism
In an unprecedented move that can be likened to the current White House’s bid towards media censorship, the USDA’s removal will pose detrimental to the U.S. public’s access to information on animal abuse and general welfare.
The inspection reports previously available through the USDA-APHIS site were crucial in helping animal-welfare groups determine potential or ongoing abuses in these commercial facilities. Over the years, reporting on animal wellbeing violations has had a big role in ending numerous incidents of abuse. Most recently the USDA documents have led to investigation of Ringling Bros. Circus’ horrific handling of elephants that led to public outcry and its eventual shutdown in 2017, the stories beginning around 2012 that cited research labs violating the Welfare Act by dehydrating and mistreating several primates causing death and the March 2016 story exposing 20 years of animal abuse in a roadside zoo in Maine among many others.
Doug Haddix, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, addressed the added burden the censorship poses to releasing effective reporting citing that long delays in processing FOIA requests have since been an issue for journalists trying to obtain necessary information. And that the added burden of having to go through the process for what they expect would be a large number of animal queries could slow these FOIA requests down a lot more.
Opposition strikes back
Animal-rights groups are not taking the USDA’s actions sitting down and have initiated joint legal action. Three days after the website was scrubbed, on February 6, the Humane Society of the United States filed legal action against the USDA, claiming it violates a previous settlement between the two parties from 2009. Other groups, including PETA, Born Free USA and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, have filed a joint lawsuit against the USDA, making the argument for the public that the data removal hinders the right to know about and identify any violations of the Animal Welfare Act. So far, the USDA has not made any statements regarding either legal action.
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