FOIA Advisor

FOIA News: USDA removing animal welfare records from agency website

FOIA News (2017)Ryan Mulvey1 Comment

Blackout blackout: The latest in the USDA's ongoing attempts to stymie transparency

Delcianna J. Winders, Salon, May 29, 2017

More than two decades ago, with the aim of “foster[ing] democracy by ensuring public access to agency records and information,” Congress amended the Freedom of Information Act to require agencies to proactively post frequently requested records online. As the legislative history makes clear, the purpose of this mandate was to “prompt agencies to make information available affirmatively on their own initiative in order to meet anticipated public demand for it.”

Pursuant to this amendment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service began posting records online related to its enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) — our nation’s most significant animal protection law. In doing so, the agency noted that it received more requests for these documents than for any other category of records and acknowledged that, given this frequency and “the continuing high interest from animal interest groups as well as the general public,” the law required such posting.

Despite this clear recognition of its legal duties, in a muchpublicized move earlier this year, the agency abruptly took all of these records down from its website. Dubbed the #USDAblackout, the action was almost universally condemned, not just by animal advocates but also by more than 100 members of Congress and even those in the very industries regulated by the AWA and subject to the disclosures, including zoos, research institutions, and the pet trade. The takedown of the website was Orwellian — the agency claimed it was done “[b]ased on [its] commitment to being transparent [and] remaining responsive to [its] stakeholders’ informational needs.” But what has ensued since is perhaps even more surreal.

Read more here.