USDA removes online database critical to animal welfare work

***UPDATE: There is now a phone number available to make your voice heard on this issue. Call (844) 820-2234 to let the USDA know that you want to see the restoration of the APHIS database. Please be courteous and remind them that transparency is important to you as a citizen and a taxpayer.***

The federal government plays an oversight role to a large number of businesses that involve animals, and they use the 1966 Animal Welfare Act (AWA) to oversee that work. The types of businesses range from circuses and zoos to domestic animal enterprises such as laboratories that test on animals, as well as something we work on very closely at Best Friends, commercial animal breeding facilities (better known as puppy and kitten mills).

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the governing body of these “license holders.” While the woefully outdated AWA doesn’t truly provide the right level of protection for animals, there has been an online database that allowed at least some transparency about the inspections performed at these facilities and served as a repository to understand who in fact held a license and was, say, breeding puppies.

Until a few days ago, that is.

The database, known as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), was an invaluable resource for the entire movement working to help create a better future for all types of animals. The database included critical information such as inspection reports, which would offer a history on how an individual license holder had performed during inspections done by USDA inspectors. Think of it like your local county health department performing inspections on restaurants. Knowing that a restaurant has a rodent infestation or isn’t keeping food at the proper temperature is good information for customers to have.

Best Friends believes in transparency, whether that’s in how we’re executing on our own mission or how municipal shelters are operating. As the old saying goes, information is power. Whether it’s information that can equip you to make the right decision for dinner, or information that tells us which puppy mills are not meeting the already low standards of the AWA, the removal of that information is a huge blow to individual consumers. And in this particular case, it’s a huge blow to a movement that depends on that information to inform us about how animals are being treated at these facilities coast to coast.

This is not just an animal welfare issue. It is a consumer protection issue. Say a family wants to purchase a puppy or a kitten from a pet store. I won’t get into the many reasons why that is a bad idea in the first place, but let’s assume that well-meaning but uninformed parents enter a pet store and want to know as much as they can about where that young animal comes from. Remember, this is not only an expensive financial investment, it is a huge emotional investment for the family and especially the children.

Many states require that the store list the name of the kennel and the operator on the cage card. Until now, prospective buyers could go to the USDA site and find out if the breeder of this important new member of the family has past violations of health and safety regulations. This kind of information is essential if buyers want to be reasonably sure that they won’t be managing costly health or behavior issues down the road. Information about prior violations, which might influence someone’s decision to buy a pet, is no longer available to the public.

Why this database has been taken off-line seems to be unknown. The USDA has posted an explanation on the APHIS website. The most informative piece is this:


Based on our commitment to being transparent, remaining responsive to our stakeholders’ informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals, APHIS is implementing actions to remove documents it posts on APHIS’ website involving the Horse Protection Act (HPA) and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that contain personal information. These documents include inspection reports, research facility annual reports, regulatory correspondence (such as official warnings), lists of regulated entities, and enforcement records (such as pre-litigation settlement agreements and administrative complaints) that have not received final adjudication. In addition, APHIS will review and redact, as necessary, the lists of licensees and registrants under the AWA, as well as lists of designated qualified persons (DQPs) licensed by USDA-certified horse industry organizations to ensure personal information is not released to the general public.

Because the reports disclose “personal” information about license holders, such as their names and addresses, they’re not going to share the reports. The statement hints at the idea of a new and “improved” version that would redact that kind of information. But ultimately it says that the way forward to do this research is through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. With more than 9,000 facilities of all kinds holding a USDA license, keeping track through a slow and bureaucratic mess of red tape is a major step back for how the public can keep tabs on what is going on at these facilities.

In many ways, this is a companion action to so-called “ag-gag” laws popping up around the country that prohibit and penalize the undercover investigation of factory farming operations, including puppy mills. If you can’t find out where they are located and who operates them, you are less able to go investigate them.

This is not about privacy. It is about secrecy.

The USDA works for the American public. It is not an agriculture industry trade group. It is constituted to act on behalf of the people to ensure a variety of things that are in the public interest, including food safety and the marginally humane treatment of animals. The USDA’s responsibility is to serve the public — not factory farming interests.

The statement says the USDA is committed to transparency. But how could the removal of these inspection reports be a commitment to transparency? The minimum standards for puppy mills have been too weak for too long. The AWA is so outdated, and even when these types of operations are inspected, the inspectors are more concerned about facility inspection — not animal care, as the more than 50-year-old law dictates. The entire animal welfare movement has pushed for more stringent licensed facility standards that are much more deeply concerned with the welfare of the animals — not just that a puppy mill has a leaky roof.

But thanks to this decision, not only will we not know when a commercial breeding operation fails these inadequate inspections, we don’t even know where the facilities are at all.

The best way for you to take action right now is to call your federally elected officials and tell them that you disagree with the decision to remove public access to the USDA APHIS database. Click here to find the contact information for your officials.

Best Friends will be tracking this issue very closely and we need your voice now more than ever. Please click here to sign up to receive advocacy alerts.

Together, we can Save Them All.