MSPCA, PETA and Others in Lawsuit Against USDA for Removal of Documents from Website

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The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is one of six plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allegedly violating the federal Freedom of Information Act this month when it removed animal welfare inspection reports and more from the USDA's federal website -- and they want the info back on the website.

Along with the MSPCA, the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); Delcianna Winders, who is the Academic Fellow of the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Program; the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C.; Born Free USA based in Washington, D.C.; and the Beagle Freedom Project from California.

On Feb. 3, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) removed thousands of reports that document and provide significant information vital to animal welfare organizations. Information in the documents include the number of animals kept by research labs, companies, zoos, circuses and animal transporters. The formerly publicly-accesible documents include info on whether those animals are being treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act. With the information no longer on the website organizations like the MSPCA would have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to receive the info.

APHIS' initial statement on Feb. 3 regarding the removal of information from the website said it was due to a comprehensive review during the past year and "to be equally committed to both transparency and protecting personal information." APHIS decided to remove certain personal information from documents it posts involving the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act. APHIS said they removed inspection reports, regulatory correspondence, research facility annual reports and enforcement records that have not received final adjudication.

The MSPCA released the following statement to Jamaica Plain News:

“Ready access to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) inspection and violation reports is extremely important to the MSPCA and our supporters. For example, these reports are critical to our ability to advocate for laws to restrict pet shops from selling puppies from large commercial breeders (“puppy mills”) with records of Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations. We rely on these reports to support ongoing efforts to educate the public about violations incurred by wild animal circuses, and for many other animal protection efforts. We joined this lawsuit to compel the USDA to return to its website all records required to be publicly available related to its licensed facilities -- puppy mills, laboratories, roadside zoos, traveling shows and other facilities that confine and use animals covered under the AWA. This is the work our members expect and we will keep fighting until this information is made readily available to the public again.”

The APHIS amended its initial statement on Feb. 7 to include the following:

The review of APHIS’ website has been ongoing, and the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy. In 2016, well before the change of Administration, APHIS decided to make adjustments to the posting of regulatory records. In addition, APHIS is currently involved in litigation concerning, among other issues, information posted on the agency’s website. While the agency is vigorously defending against this litigation, in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy. These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting.