The signs have been increasingly clear, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has now made it official: The agency has turned its back on the animals it is charged with protecting under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and instead set its sights on protecting animal exploiters.
Often, less government involvement is a good thing. But the USDA is sucking up tax dollars and blatantly refusing to fulfill its mandate. Congress must step if the AWA — our nation’s most important animal protection law — is to mean anything.
In an email sent to stakeholders late last week, the USDA announced radical revisions to the website where, for years, it has straightforwardly released AWA enforcement data, as well as the release of its Fiscal Year 2018 Animal Care Impact Report.
Enforcement data has become especially important in recent years since the USDA stopped posting actual enforcement actions and defied Congress’s orders that it restore this information. When I recently met with the agency’s deputy administrator for animal care, Bernadette Juarez, who is responsible for overseeing implementation of the AWA, she told me unequivocally that the agency has no intention of restoring that information. (A coalition led by PETA and myself are suing the USDA to restore access to this critically important information.)
Though the USDA tries to obscure its reasons for radically changing the format in which it releases AWA enforcement data, it’s a transparent attempt to hide a wholly unprecedented decline in what were already woefully inadequate enforcement actions. Digging through the new web page for data that was previously clear, and comparing it with past years’ data — which the USDA has now “archived” explicitly to avoid comparison — one learns that in fiscal year 2018, the USDA took only a tiny fraction of the enforcement actions it took in past years: Less than one third as many as in fiscal year 2017, and less than a quarter as many as in fiscal year 2016.
To be clear, it’s not like there was an over-enforcement problem. To the contrary, the USDA Office of Inspector General has repeatedly and consistently condemned the agency’s enforcement of the AWA as “ineffective” and “basically meaningless.”
The new “Animal Care Impact Report” makes clear what’s going on. There, the agency unabashedly and repeatedly boasts that its primary commitment it to what it calls — 19 times in five pages — its “customers.”
Who are those customers? The USDA helpfully breaks that down for us in a sidebar titled “Meet Our Customers”: They are “6,614 licensed breeders, dealers, and exhibitors,” “2,062 registered research facilities, carriers, and intermediate handlers,” and other entities that Congress tasked the USDA with regulating. But, rather than regulate pursuant to its statutory mandates, the report crows that “USDA’s goal is to be the most effective and most customer focused department in the Federal government.” Not to protect animals.
The report also touts dozens of outreach meetings with these “customers.” In stark contrast, in fiscal year 2018 the USDA had just one outreach meeting with the animal protection community — a meeting at which the community was prohibited from asking any questions, just as it was this week at the only meeting for fiscal year 2019.
Outrageously the report also asserts “we expect and require complete honesty and integrity in all we do” and “[w]e own up to problems and are always responsive.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as underscored by its attempted sleight of hand to obscure an unprecedented decline in enforcement and other recent misdeeds.
Perhaps most notably, the agency has taken to deceive the public, as well as funding agencies, state and local officials, and others, by deliberately posting fraudulent inspection reports. Today’s report boasts that “91 percent of facilities were in compliance with the AWA during inspection.” Yet records obtained by PETA show that the agency is posting online and relying on inspection reports that assert “[n]o non-compliant items identified during this inspection,” while simultaneously documenting non-compliant items (i.e., violations) on what they call “Teachable Moments” forms that are kept secret from the public.
When I recently asked Juarez, a public servant, what was being done to address the fact that these reports were misleading the public and others, she responded that such “accusatory statements” had a “chilling effect” on her willingness to meet with PETA. She did nevertheless meet with me a few weeks ago — and conceded, as she had to, that such reports are at best misleading, but defended them as protecting regulated entities (i.e., the USDA’s “customers”) from “disparagement.”
The agency has clearly lost its compass, and Congress must step in with urgency.
Delcianna J. Winders (@DelciannaW) is vice president and deputy general counsel at the PETA Foundation, adjunct faculty at Vermont Law School, and the author of a series of recent law review articles about the Animal Welfare Act.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.