Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a new policy that will make it harder for citizens to find out how animals are used in laboratories and whether those facilities are complying with federal law. Without this information, it will be more expensive and time-consuming to track whether research is moving away from animal experiments and toward human-relevant studies. That means that animals are likely to suffer even more.
For many years, the USDA’s website included a searchable database of inspection reports for research facilities and other institutions regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act. The database also included the research facilities’ annual reports, which allowed the public to see how many Animal Welfare Act-covered animals were used and by what species. But, yesterday, the USDA shut down that database.
The agency claims the decision was in response to its “commitment to being transparent, remaining responsive to our stakeholders’ informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.” All personal and location information was censored before documents were publicly disclosed, so it’s unclear how the wholesale removal of these records demonstrates a commitment to transparency or privacy rights.
In recent years, the Physicians Committee has used records from the USDA database to help shut down Harvard’s New England Primate Research Center. We also exposed violations of the law by laboratories housing chimpanzees, which increased public scrutiny and ultimately led to the federal government retiring our closest genetic relatives to sanctuaries.
USDA’s decision leaves organizations like ours no other option than to file requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a practice that can be time-consuming and costly. Even before yesterday’s announcement, FOIA requests to the USDA regularly took months to complete. Longer delays mean that information about how animals are used in laboratories and other federally regulated facilities will take even longer to see the light of day – delays that may require legal action in order to compel USDA to release records.
The Physicians Committee’s program and legal teams are coordinating with experts outside the organization to devise an effective response to the USDA’s new policy.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research and medical training.