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USDA’s enforcement of animal welfare laws plummeted in 2018, agency figures show

In two years, the agency’s records have gone from being publicly searchable online to often available only by Freedom of Information Act requests and in redacted form.

KARIN BRULLIARD: ‘Two years ago, the Agriculture Department issued 192 written warnings to breeders, exhibitors and research labs that allegedly violated animal welfare laws, and the agency filed official complaints against 23, according to agency data. This year, those figures plummeted: The department had issued 39 warnings in the first three-quarters of fiscal 2018, and it filed and simultaneously settled one complaint — with a $2,000 fine for an infamous Iowa dog breeder who had already been out of business for five years.

In August, USDA issued no warnings, filed no complaints and imposed no penalties through settlements with any of the 8,000 or so facilities it licenses and inspects under the federal Animal Welfare Act, according to documents obtained by an animal rights group. The agency says the drop is the result of a suspension of hearings due to litigation, as well as a revamped enforcement process that emphasizes working more closely with alleged violators rather than a protracted investigative process that numerous internal audits have faulted for ineffectiveness.

But the result is less transparency into an increasingly opaque enforcement system. In two years, the agency’s records have gone from being publicly searchable online to often available only by Freedom of Information Act requests and in redacted form. And the enforcement changes, critics charge, favor regulated-animal businesses while further eroding public accountability… The agency stopped posting enforcement records in August 2016, replacing them with a numerical summary of activities… The agency later restored some records to its public database, many with heavy redactions…

Animal rights groups that have relied on enforcement records to highlight animal mistreatment and say they are now less sure than ever how it is being recorded or policed. “Is what they’re really trying to hide their own failure to enforce the law?” said Delcianna Winders, a vice president at the PETA Foundation. “They’re withholding information that would have allowed folks like PETA to step in and help these animals where the agency was failing to do so”.’ SOURCE…

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