Quest For Transparency

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Animal Action. 

Why information on animal use is getting harder to obtain—and what NAVS is doing about it.

On its face, the issue of “transparency” may not seem like the most pressing concern facing animal advocates. But the truth is, all that NAVS does—and every success on behalf of animals that our supporters make possible—is based on our having as much current and accurate information as possible. Knowledge of how animals are used, for what purpose and with what results is important in advocating for change. Without, for example, knowing what species of animals are most often used and how, it’s difficult to prioritize which kinds of alternatives should be developed most quickly. And without knowing how
many animals are used, it’s difficult to find out if we are coming closer to achieving our mission of ending animal testing and experimentation for good.

That information has always been challenging to obtain—some of it isn’t even being collected. And in recent years, access to the information that is collected has become increasingly difficult to access. The current lack of U.S. government transparency in reporting on animal use hinders NAVS ability to get crucial data. This in turn prevents us from being able
to assess and develop strategies for ending animal testing and experimentation. When trying to get even basic information from the USDA, animal advocates like NAVS run into constant hurdles—from lengthy response times to receiving reports with information that is almost entirely blacked out with redactions.

How The Use Of Animals Is Currently Reported, And Why NAVS Filed A Petition To Change It

Enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA)—the federal law that protects certain animals and regulates facilities that use them—falls under the purview of the United States Department of Agriculture, specifically the Animal Care unit of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS. As the administrator of the AWA, APHIS is supposed to conduct thorough, unannounced inspections of facilities licensed or registered under the Act. these inspections are meant to assess these facilities and ensure that they are providing proper housing, nutrition and water, and any necessary veterinary care to their animals. These inspections are followed by a report issued by the USDA inspector.

After working with these inspection reports, NAVS uncovered serious flaws in the status quo—especially when it came to reports on inspections involving animal research facilities. These issues included both how the information is reported to the public and how the information is collected from these institutions covered by APHIS. Critical data regarding how animals are actually used for research, what type of research they are used for, and their disposition once research is completed could not be obtained through the reporting system.

In an effort to improve these significant deficiencies, in 2014 NAVS filed a petition for rulemaking with the USDA to amend the Animal Welfare Regulations’ Recordkeeping requirements to require the collection of more accurate and useful information. Modeled after the European Union’s system of recordkeeping, the petition requested the forms that research facilities use be revised to include elements that would aid in the collection of more information, and even offered an example form to replace the current one. In addition, NAVS requested the USDA use what would be the newly-collected
data to inform the publishing of the Annual Report each year on the APHIS website. is would allow the new report to reflect the purpose of the research, origin of animal (purpose-bred, random source, etc.), whether it is genetically altered, and other highly important information that had been left out of previous reports.

The petition was officially filed on December 15, 2014. NAVS waited eagerly for a response.

Transparency Takes A Hit

While NAVS waited on a response to the official petition for rulemaking, things continued to get worse for transparency. In
February 2017, the USDA suddenly removed online access to the APHIS inspection reports, called the Animal Care Search Tool. While, as the petition for rulemaking pointed out, these reports needed to include more data, removing this online database presented a huge blow to the ability to easily access the information that did exist in these reports. The removal affected more than just those advocating on behalf of animals used in research: Pet stores attempting to responsibly source their animals were no longer able to check the licenses for breeders to ensure they were not purchasing animals from known violators of the Animal Welfare Act.

NAVS sent thousands of letters to legislators on behalf of outraged advocates across the country demanding that the government make public records available that were required by law and essential for accurately informing the public about animal use and abuse. The response from the USDA told us that now, to get these reports, the public would need to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain information that was once instantly accessible online at no cost.

A very limited amount of information has since been restored to an online database, but FOIA requests are still the main recourse to get information. These requests have proven to be costly, as institutions fulfilling the FOIA requests can charge for the cost of searching for necessary records, reviewing and reproducing them. Additionally, many organizations—including federal government agencies—take the maximum amount of time to respond to our requests, and when the requested information is finally sent, the reports are often heavily redacted and nearly unusable.

APHIS Inspections Become More Lax

It doesn’t help that it has also recently come to light that the USDA and APHIS have made headlines for issuing drastically fewer citations to facilities that house animals protected by the AWA in the past few years. A recent Washington Post article points out that fewer than 1,800 citations were issued in 2018—a huge drop from the more then 4,000 citations issued the previous year.

While this may, at first, seem like a positive development, NAVS questions the cause of this significant drop in citations, as evidence points not to improved conditions for animals, but to weaker enforcement of federal law that allows more leniency for those who violate the AWA. New reporting policies that may be masking more violations, paired with an existing precedent of lax APHIS enforcement, suggest that these inspections and the subsequent reports are failing the animals these agencies are supposedly tasked with protecting.

The USDA Respond To Our Petition-More Than Four Years Later

Just this past April, NAVS finally received a response to our petition for rulemaking filed in 2014. 

In her response to NAVS, Bernadette Juarez, Deputy Administrator of Animal Care at APHIS acknowledged the overwhelming support of our petition, noting, “Those in favor expressed the need for transparency and more detail on the animal use so as to promote accountability. Several expressed the public had a right to know because taxpayer money is being used to fund research. Others made the point that greater detail can result in identifying alternatives to animal use.”

Despite this, APHIS indicated that it would not be making any changes to the way it collects and reports on animal use. The agency justified their decision to maintain its current data collection and reporting practices by claiming that it lacked the authority to make the changes that we requested. However, the changes we proposed to increase transparency regarding research animals are, in fact, within APHIS’ purview, and ones that could have been adopted by the agency, just as it made available new online reporting for licensees. Instead, APHIS just chose to deny our request.

What Comes Next?

NAVS is preparing to respond to APHIS and plans to continue to fight on behalf of transparency.

There is good news: federal legislation is currently being considered that would help restore transparency to animal research reporting. The Agricultural, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and related agencies Appropriations Act of 2020, HR 3164, contains language that would direct APHIS to restore all publicly available animal welfare inspection reports that were available on the Animal Care Public Search Tool when it was taken down in 2017. The House Appropriations Committee’s report accompanying this bill recommended restoring—in full—the online searchable database, including all inspection reports, records of noncompliance and research facility annual reports, without redaction of their content except for signatures.

Additionally, the Federal Accountability in Chemical Testing (FACT) Act, HR 249, would require federal agencies to describe
the progress they are making in developing, validating and utilizing alternative methods instead of using traditional animal tests. It would also require agencies to report on their animal use data by species, number and test type for toxicological testing being conducted.

These federal bills represent important steps in increasing the transparency required to gather the information that provides the foundation of NAVS’ work and can serve as complements to our other efforts to ensure we can get the crucial data we need. You can take action on these bills at our online Advocacy Center, and can support our ongoing campaigns to increase transparency at here. 🐾


This entry was posted in News and tagged on January 24, 2020.
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