USDA may warn some facilities when animal welfare inspectors are coming

Thursday , May 17, 2018 - 12:10 PM

Karin Brulliard and Juliet Eilperin

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

For decades, the Department of Agriculture has routinely conducted surprise inspections at zoos, breeding operations, research labs and other facilities to evaluate whether they’re complying with federal animal welfare laws, and issue warnings or penalties if not.

Now the agency is testing another approach: “announced inspections.”

In a letter sent last month to entities regulated by the Animal Welfare Act, an agency official announced the launch of a pilot project to explore whether letting some facilities know inspectors are coming “actually improves the efficiency of our inspection program and improves the humane treatment of animals.” The department has no plans to discontinue unannounced inspections, but is considering “blending” them with announced ones, wrote Bernadette Juarez, the deputy administrator of animal care in the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Giving advance notice could help ensure a facility’s attending veterinarian is present and coordinate “optimal hours” for the inspection, Juarez wrote.

An APHIS spokesman, who confirmed the authenticity of the letter, declined to make an agency official available for an interview. But the program appears to be part of a broader re-evaluation of the inspections process at more than 10,000 facilities assessed by 103 agency inspectors. Earlier this year, the department solicited public comment on the possibility of considering third-party inspections as part of what it calls its risk-based system, which relies in part on a facility’s record of compliance with animal welfare laws.

Both ideas are unsettling to animal protection advocates, which say they would reduce accountability for an agency that has already come under fire for a lack of transparency. Early last year, the USDA abruptly removed all inspection records from its website, only to replace many with heavily redacted versions. Announced inspections, critics say, would be akin to police calling a possible crime scene before arriving to investigate.

“It’s going to result in even fewer violations being detected,” said Delcianna Winders, a vice president at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation. “Things are going to be cleaned up, suffering and dead animals are going to be hidden, and we’re just not going to know what the real, day-to-day conditions of the facilities are.”

APHIS has not advertised that it is weighing whether to allow announced inspections, and the pilot project was not identified in the Federal Register docket USDA opened on the prospect of weighing third-party inspections of animal welfare conditions. While Juarez’s letter said the pilot is targeted toward “certain situations involving certain facilities,” it did not clarify how those facilities would be selected.

As required by the Animal Welfare Act, the agency conducts inspections annually at research facilities and at least every three years at others, looking for things ranging from proper enclosures to trimmed hoofs to clean drinking water. The frequency of inspection depends on how well a facility has previously performed and other criteria that the agency does not specify. (PETA sued the USDA in March over its failure to respond to a public records request for this information two years ago.)

At a public listening session in Santa Clara, California in January, Juarez said third-party inspections - which might be carried out by voluntary accrediting organizations - would not replace government inspections. Instead, she said, the agency could rely on them to determine how often to inspect and whether an accredited facility “should receive a positive factor.”

“We may be able to kick out the frequency with which we visit those facilities so that we can conserve our resources and make more frequent visits to facilities that we know have compliance challenges,” she said. As examples of third-party accrediting organizations, she cited the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, and AAALAC, which accredits research institutions.

The third-party proposal was met with sharp pushback from animal protection groups, which cast it as a fox-guarding-henhouse idea. But it also was strongly opposed by several facilities the USDA regulates.

The AZA, in a letter submitted to the agency as part of a public comment period, complained about the vagueness of the idea and said the current system “is working fairly effectively.” At a February listening session in Maryland, the Zoological Association of America expressed concern that it might be saddled with performing inspections. At a March listening session in Kansas City, Rodney Blosser of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association worried that animal advocacy groups might be deployed as inspectors.

“I don’t like to see the third party come in if it’s going to be run by just the Humane Society or something like that,” Blosser said.

In a statement to The Washington Post, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s president, Mike Bober, noted “near-universal opposition to” the approach and encouraged the USDA to “continue researching the best way to use scarce public resources most effectively to ensure animal health and well-being.”

But the idea has been supported by the research community, which has long complained that a mishmash of regulations - some labs are overseen not just by the USDA, but also by the National Institutes of Health and a university committee - is far too burdensome. That complaint gained traction in 2016 with the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, which ordered NIH to work with the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to reduce “administrative burden” on researchers.

In October, a coalition of scientific research groups issued a sweeping report that recommended, among other things, that Congress reduce inspections to every three years and that the USDA consider AAALAC accreditation as a factor in its risk-based inspection system. In comments to the USDA, that coalition, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said 82 percent of USDA inspections at research facilities in fiscal 2017 were free of “noncompliant items,” or violations, and 84 percent of violations “did not pose a direct threat to animal welfare.”

“On some large campuses, a USDA visit can last anywhere from three to five days,” said J.R. Haywood, a vice president for research and graduate studies at Michigan State University who is a member of that coalition’s animals in research and education committee. “For those institutions that have great track records, is it a good use of resource on the part of USDA?”

At those sites, Haywood said, “it simply wouldn’t matter whether [inspections] are announced or unannounced,” and third-party assessments could be useful to the USDA.

Animal advocates like Winders counter that by pointing to a 2014 peer-reviewed study that found AAALAC-accredited facilities had higher rates of violations than unaccredited sites. She said she would support simplifying inspections for research facilities, but only by appointing a new agency to regulate them, because, she argued, the USDA and NIH are too lenient on those that violate animal welfare laws.

The agency letter on the announced inspections pilot did not specify when a final decision would be made. For now, Juarez wrote, the USDA is trying to determine whether they might “have a useful place in our repertoire.”

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