A coalition of animal rights groups filed a joint lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture after the agency removed thousands of animal welfare documents from the web. They argue the USDA is violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by removing these records from the public realm.
Earlier this month, the USDA quietly stripped a database of records from the web that included inspection reports and annual reviews filed under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act (HPA). The databases included reports from when a dog breeder was charged under the AWA, for example, and the annual reports that research facilities that test on animals are required to file. The files were often used by animal welfare groups to audit how well the USDA enforced these laws, but were also useful for researchers and the public seeking information about specific businesses, such as dog breeders.
The USDA told Motherboard the decision to remove the files was in response to current litigation surrounding a privacy issue, but now the agency is facing a new lawsuit for stripping the files from the web.
A number of animal rights groups, including PETA, Born Free USA, and the Massachusetts SPCA, filed a lawsuit in Washington, DC's district court Monday claiming the USDA is violating FOIA. The USDA said the files would still be available to the public through FOIA request, but the lawsuit argues that this will seriously hinder the public's ability to keep tabs on how the USDA handles animal welfare because most requests take months, or even years, to get a response.
"For example, PETA recently received a response to a FOIA request that had been pending for over four-and-a-half years in which the agency stated that there were no records responsive to PETA's request," the lawsuit reads.
It also points out that the decision to start posting these records in the first place was in an effort to both increase transparency and to reduce the burden of FOIA requests on the agency.
A spokesperson for the USDA said the agency could not comment on pending litigation.
"The USDA data purge is an outrageous obstruction of the work that journalists, lawyers, animal advocates, and private citizens do in the interest of protecting animal welfare," Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA said in a press release.
USDA's decision has now shielded the worst animal exhibitors, breeders, and researchers from the public eye, enabling them to violate federal law and perpetrate animal abuse in relative secrecy."