On March 20, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service released its data on enforcement actions taken by its Investigative and Enforcement Services (IES) for fiscal 2019. This information was largely absent from APHIS records since they removed their records from public view in early 2017. While some information has been restored to the internet, enforcement actions for violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) were missing.
Now, thanks to a directive from Congress, APHIS is restoring their public records to the internet, at least to the pre-2017 levels. But what APHIS recently posted regarding its 2019 enforcement actions is in itself rather unbelievable.
According to the new data, in fiscal 2019, APHIS Investigative and Enforcement Services:
- Opened 1,359 new cases;
- Issued 218 warning letters;
- Entered into 339 pre-litigation settlement agreements resulting in the collection of $714,665 in stipulated penalties; and
- Obtained, through Office of the General Counsel action, Administrative Orders assessing $308,660 in civil penalties.
While this sounds like robust activity for a single year, it is important to note that these actions include all enforcement actions by the agency. That means that this information includes enforcement actions against:
- Licensees under the Animal Welfare Act, which include
- Registered research facilities
- Intermediate animal handlers
- Licensed breeders
- Animal dealers
- Licensees under the Horse Protection Act;
- Passenger baggage cases;
- Plant protection and quarantine;
- Biotechnology regulatory services; and
- Agriculture quarantine inspections carried out by customs and board protection agencies.
Of the many actions initiated against licensees under the watchful eye of APHIS, only 17 were AWA-regulated entities.
According to APHIS, there are “a number of available options to resolve a case in which the evidence substantiates that an alleged violation has occurred.” Among these options are:
- Issuing regulatory correspondence (such as an official warning) to the individuals or businesses involved in the alleged violation;
- Offering to resolve the case through a stipulated penalty; and
- Referring the case to the USDA Office of the General Counsel for formal administrative action before the USDA Office of Administrative Law Judges.
During the past fiscal year APHIS:
- Opened 17 new cases concerning AWA-regulated entities;
- Issued warning letters to two AWA-regulated entities;
- Entered settlement agreements with four AWA-regulated entities, and collected a total of $17,000 in stipulated penalties;
- Issued ten administrative orders assessing $147,300 in civil fines; and
- Issued three final orders suspending or revoking the licenses of Animal Welfare Act licensees.
- Held 35 AWA-regulated entities were under formal administrative review
- Opened but did not complete 14 investigations of violations by AWA-regulated entities.
While these numbers may not add up to the number of new cases reported (most probably because some cases were opened in fiscal year 2018 ), something else doesn’t add up: the small number of violations reported, given the fact that approximate 2,060 research facilities are licensed in this country.
Many of these regulated entities use thousands of animals for research each year. APHIS oversight includes review of the physical facilities, welfare of animals and adherence to protocols approved by each institutions animal care and use committee. It is astonishing to learn that there were fewer than 50 violations occurring last year that impact the welfare of animals in the laboratory. But the newly released data just demonstrates the poor job APHIS had done of monitoring animal welfare.
NAVS has expressed concern over this decrease that we have observed in the number of violations assessed against animal research facilities as we review inspection reports for numerous facilities on an ongoing basis. The current data buttresses our findings that AWA violations are being minimized and research facilities are not being held accountable for their failure to adhere to the minimum regulations provided for the welfare of the millions of animals used each year in research.
A full accounting of violations is needed to ensure progress in instituting reforms, to minimize the number of invalid research studies that are tainted by the poor quality of care provided to animals and to satisfy the public’s right to know about the welfare of animals purportedly protected by federal law.
The research community and the USDA must remain accountable for their treatment of animals and for removing a lax regard for their welfare from the culture of administrative review.
Please ask your U.S. Representatives to support the Federal Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act, HR 4211, to create a “citizens suit” provision for animal welfare enforcement and require the USDA to provide detailed enforcement records to the APHIS searchable public website.