The United States Department of Agriculture has ended a longstanding practice of making animal welfare reports available on its website. Previously tens of thousands of reports could be read online concerning treatment of animals at nearly 8000 facilities, including about 1200 research laboratories as well as zoos, circuses, and various commercial enterprises. The reports have to do mainly with large mammals covered under the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act.
This is according to articles published in both Science and Nature, the two largest-circulation general science journals.
The USDA’s statement says that the change is intended to protect personal information. But personal information is in fact routinely redacted from these reports, and the reports are still available through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The article in Science says in part,
Inspection reports contain little, if any, personal information about individuals.
Public access to the reports has led to scores of media reports like this article in The Boston Globe in 2012 documenting problems at Harvard University’s primate research facility; the university later closed the trouble-prone New England Primate Research Center. Similarly, the reports allowed Nature and The New Yorker to report on the chronic abuse of goats held at the private company Santa Cruz Biotechnology in California, once the world’s second largest marketer of research antibodies. Several months after the Nature report, USDA in a rare move revoked the company’s license to market the antibodies.
“[These are] basic data about animal use and compliance that taxpayers have a right to access, particularly when it comes to taxpayer-funded labs,” says Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project, a Washington, D.C.–based group that opposes taxpayer-funded animal experiments.
The Humane Society of the United States said in a statement: “This action benefits no one, except facilities who have harmed animals and don’t want anyone to know.”
The disappearance of information caught animal-welfare groups by surprise. “I’m just flabbergasted,” says Eric Kleiman, a research consultant at the Animal Welfare Institute, an advocacy group in Washington DC. “This is not only the opposite of transparency, it takes us back to the Stone Age.”
Getting such information through FOIA requests can take years, Klein says. And knowing what information to request will be difficult, as the USDA will no longer post complaints that it or outside groups file against an institution. These complaints often trigger USDA investigations.