Normally, a lawsuit filed by our friends at PETA would be cause for contempt.
And not in the legal sense of the word.
This time is different, however, and believe it or not, I feel that animal agriculture should be cheering them on.
Heres’ the issue: Earlier this month USDA, obviously under orders from the administration, announced that it had pulled from its publicly accessible website the animal welfare records of research labs, dog breeders and other facilities using animals. The move, which was never fully explained, drew heavy criticism from activist groups and quickly spawned a lawsuit.
The legal brief, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by plaintiffs PETA, the Beagle Freedom Project and Born Free USA, et al, is straightforward and direct:
“This is an action under the Freedom of Information Act, as amended, to compel the United States Department of Agriculture to publicly disclose thousands of records that the agency for years posted on the website of its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service pursuant to FOIA’s 1996 electronic records requirements, but which it recently removed from its website, and to proactively disclose all similar records in the future. These records — inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence, enforcement records, and lists of entities licensed under the Animal Welfare Act — have been routinely posted for many years by the USDA pursuant to FOIA’s affirmative disclosure requirements.” [statutory citations edited out]
That’s pretty clear.
Not only are animal activists taking to the courts, but congressional lawmakers are now pressuring the Trump administration to restore public access to the records.
Some 18 Senate Democrats have sent a letter to Michael Young, the department’s acting deputy, urging USDA to reverse the decision. Next, nearly 100 House Members sent a similar letter to President Trump asking him to “immediately restore” the records. Eleven Republicans were among those signing the House letter.
“Public release of inspection reports and laboratory annual reports increases pressure on entities to abide by the rules,” the House letter read. “Access to these records has enabled the public to learn about many animal-care violations, including those by puppy mills, roadside zoos and training barns engaged in cruel horse soring. It has also provided accountability for research facilities that violate the law, and allowed assessment of how many animals are used (often with taxpayer funding) for research that causes unrelieved pain.”
According to The Washington Post, USDA said its action “was spurred by court opinions, litigation and privacy laws.” The department announced that the records in question will now be available only through FOIA requests, which as anyone who’s attempted such a request, can be slow-walked for months and even years before an agency complies — or simply denied outright under guise of privacy, national security or release of proprietary information.
“Our lawsuit seeks to compel the USDA to reinstate the records, which it had no right to remove from its website in the first place,” said Delcianna J. Winders, a Harvard Animal Law and Policy fellow and a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers and lawbreakers from public scrutiny.”
Forget for a moment that the groups who filed this lawsuit are often opposed to animal agriculture.
On this issue, the industry should be standing with them, for two reasons.
First, transparency is the hallmark of democracy. Both the career staff and the appointed leadership at every federal agency are public servants. We pay their salaries, they report to us, and thus the data they collect, with an extremely limited number of exceptions, belong to we the people.
Second and more importantly, industry’s position on animal well-being needs to be crystal clear: We have nothing to hide.
If the overwhelming majority of ranchers, producers and feeders are conscientious stewards of the animals they raise — and they are — then the data on government inspections of and enforcement actions against those who aren’t ought to be available to anyone who cares to examine them.
In any business or industrial sector, only unscrupulous operators want the results of public scrutiny kept private.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, veteran journalist and commentator.