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Stabenow, reps hit removal of data

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Lawmakers from both parties are expressing dismay at the removal this month of years’ worth of animal-welfare inspection reports and other data from the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A few weeks into the Trump administration, the records were scrubbed from the website of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in early February. The documents included enforcement citations for violations of the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act and other records that allowed the public to learn about the treatment of animals by thousands of research laboratories, zoos, aquariums, commercial dog breeders and horse trainers.

A USDA spokesman said this week that the agency’s review of the website is ongoing and that it is “striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy.”

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, recently sent a letter to the acting deputy secretary of Agriculture expressing concern and demanding answers, as did a bipartisan group of 101 House members led by Republican Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona.

Stabenow noted the Feb. 3 data purge was done with “no warning and little explanation,” raising many questions, including which administration officials were involved in the decision and the legal basis for removing the information.

She also noted that the Freedom of Information Act requires making documents available that are “likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records.”

“Given that these types of records have been used for years by animal welfare groups and others, do you believe removal of these records violates this provision of the Freedom of Information Act,” Stabenow wrote, requesting a written response to her letter by March 1.

McSally’s letter urges the USDA to restore online, searchable access to the documents “immediately” to maintain transparency, noting that Congress has provided tens of millions of dollars to enforce federal animal-welfare statutes.

“These are two of our nation’s most important and broadly supported animal welfare programs,” McSally wrote, joined by 100 colleagues.

“The public has a right to know if regulated entities have subjected animals in their care to abuse or otherwise failed to meet basic welfare standards. Public access to information can guide consumer decision-making and plays an important role in deterring regulated entities from violating the law.”

McSally also noted that the data removal not only undermines federal laws but interferes with state and local statutes meant to protect animals and consumers. She gave the example of states that prohibit the sale of dogs from breeding operations with a history of serious violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

“Without ready access to inspection reports, dog sellers in those states will have no practical way to comply with these laws, and state and local law enforcement efforts will be severely impeded,” McSally wrote.

USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said the agency has been reviewing its posting of regulatory records on the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s site for the past year in light of privacy laws and court rulings and decided to take them down “well before the change of administration.” She also said the agency is 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,” Espinosa said by email. “These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting.”

She also said the public may submit record requests for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Such requests can take years to review and process.

“We are continuing to inspect facilities and initiate enforcement action as necessary,” Espinosa said.

Animal welfare groups including PETA and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine last week sued USDA and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in federal court in an attempt to restore access to the data and future inspection reports.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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