A lawsuit filed on Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by five animal rights groups, says the USDA’s recent removal of web pages relating to animal welfare violates the agency’s 1996 Animal Welfare Act (AWA).
The groups, PETA, Beagle Freedom Project, Born Free USA, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, public health advocacy group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Harvard Animal Law & Policy Fellow Delcianna Winders, say the pages, which detailed thousands of records, are vital to public concerns about animal welfare issues, including violations at zoos, pet breeders, and research facilities.
Animal welfare issues are at an all-time high as consumers seek transparency and more humane treatment of animals in the food system, such as cage-free eggs and alternatives to gestation crates for pregnant sows. Consumer concern over animals used for fashion, entertainment, and research purposes mirror the growing trepidation over the treatment of livestock animals. Public pressures led to SeaWorld’s recent announcement that it would cease captive breeding of killer whales. And while Ringling Bros. says its recent decision to shutter its traveling circus was not a result of pressure over its treatment of captive animals, animal rights groups saw it as a victory directly related to public pressure and declining ticket sales.
Removing the animal welfare documents violates the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), claims the lawsuit. Under FOIA regulations, certain government agencies, including the USDA, must make particular records available to the public as well as disclose additional records when requested under the FOIA rules.
“Congress enacted the AWA decades ago 'to insure that animals intended for use in research facilities or for exhibition purposes or for use as pets are provided humane care and treatment,'" the groups noted in the filing.
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“Plaintiffs and others have also relied on such records to advocate for protection of animals used in research, exhibition, and the pet trade, and to petition the USDA to more diligently enforce the AWA, to promulgate standards for animal protection, and to formulate and institute policies and practices that will advance the protection of animals."
But the agency claims the decision to take down the webpages “are not final.”
In a statement, USDA Spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said adjustments
“may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting.” The agency contends the decision was to protect the privacy of organizations and individuals, but that it also seeks to balance that protection with the public’s need for transparency. Espinosa noted FOIA requests would still be honored while the pages are disabled.
“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,” plaintiff Winders said in a statement. “The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers and lawbreakers from public scrutiny.”
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