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Why is the USDA Limiting Transparency in Animal Cruelty Complaints?

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Advocates at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute say the division of the USDA tasked with enforcing laws against animal cruelty in research is limiting transparency in the complaints it files, making it difficult for watchdog groups to keep tabs on alleged offenders.

The Washington, D.C.-based group says the USDA recently filed a request to redact portions of its own September 2016 complaint against SNBL, a company that imports monkeys to facilities in Alice, Texas and Everett, Washington, and which the USDA alleges has been negligent in allowing the gruesome deaths of 38 of the animals since 2010.

While the disturbing descriptions of the monkeys' deaths — which include thirst, suffocation and strangulation — remain intact, USDA curiously asked for the original complaint to be sealed and replaced with a copy that redacts the company's financial information, the number of animals it imported and the name of its registered agent, Mark Honda.

Much of the redacted information is publicly available elsewhere, including the USDA's own online database. It's a puzzling move, since the Animal Welfare Institute had already received a copy of the original complaint from the USDA's Freedom of Information Act office, which did not redact anything.

The USDA's motion to seal the original complaint is especially troubling to AWI President Cathy Liss, because of the nearly simultaneous decision by an administrative law judge to no longer allow the online posting of docket activity that lets advocacy groups — and the public —  know about complaints in the first place.

Liss says she's worried "how USDA can possibly handle prosecution of [SNBL] and where that case will go, and separately this whole issue of just access to information and right to know....To have this total blackout is rather horrifying."

The group's public relations director told the Houston Press in an email that the USDA's motion to seal was filed "only after the incriminating allegations detailed in the complaint resulted in widespread media coverage."

One such article, in the Los Angeles Times, noted that, the day after another animal welfare group, PETA, publicized the complaint, "SNBL announced a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services for the development of 'chemical, radiological, and nuclear...countermeasures' as part of the national security effort."

The unredacted complaint reported that SNBL grossed nearly $10 million and sold more than 2,800 animals between 2014 and 2015. Nearly 6,000 animals were used in research over that same time. The company was previously fined for violations of the Animal Welfare Act in 2008 and 2009, for which it paid a whopping $13,803.

We asked USDA spokeswoman Pamela Manns why the agency felt the need to redact information, and whether USDA lawyers were concerned that this might erode public confidence.  It was apparently such a high-falutin question that there was only one person in that branch of government who could answer, and that person wouldn't be available for three days. We agreed to wait. Then Manns got back to us with the highly reassuring, "This litigation is still pending, and we cannot commit on any pending litigations."

When we pointed out that AWI had already received the original complaint from the USDA's Freedom of Information Act Office, and even provided a copy of the USDA letter that accompanied the release of the original complaint, Manns got all hair-splittingly bureaucratic on us, stating in an email that she was only speaking on behalf of her division of the USDA, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Any limitation of public information regarding violations of the Animal Welfare Act is of concern, because publicity is probably one of the more effective tools in curbing such violations — the USDA has no real power to levy substantial fines or otherwise discipline offenders.

That these offenders can continue to procure lucrative, taxpayer-funded contracts makes it even more frustrating. As we've reported in the past, a 2014 USDA Office of Inspector General audit showed that inspectors had historically failed to investigate facilities and issue substantive fines to offenders — the audit even showed that agents wasted time and money on conducting at least 500 inspections on facilities that no longer even used animals for research.

We're eager to see how this latest complaint against SNBL is resolved — that is, if the USDA lets anyone know. 

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