USDA Announces Enhanced Animal Welfare Act Enforcement

On May 20, 2010, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan announced that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is stepping up its Animal Welfare Act (AWA) enforcement efforts. This announcement was made in a conference call with representatives of regulated entities in the research community as well as advocacy groups such as animal rights organizations.

The AWA is a federal law that regulates the treatment of animals in research and in zoos and exhibits. It also regulates dealers and intermediate carriers who buy, sell, or transport these animals. The AWA applies to warm-blooded animals, with the exception of rats, mice, and birds that were bred for research. The typical laboratory animals regulated under the AWA include rabbits, dogs, cats, ferrets, pigs, sheep, and non-human primates.

At the announcement briefing, APHIS Deputy Administrator for Animal Care Chester Gipson said new procedures are being implemented to ensure that the agency will be “tougher on repeat offenders” and ensure that all USDA Veterinary Medical Officers (VMOs) “conduct inspections and pursue noncompliance in the same way.” The new inspection requirements have also been posted at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/downloads/Inspection_Requirements.PDF (PDF).

APHIS held a meeting in Kansas City from April 19–22 to provide staff training in new inspection procedures intended to improve enforcement efforts. Some 150 Veterinary Medical Officers and other Animal Care staff from all over the country took part in a review of the new inspection requirements guide. According to the summary of the meeting posted to the APHIS website, Merrigan’s keynote speech to the staff called for an “age of enforcement.”

On May 25, five days after Merrigan’s announcement, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report (http://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/33002-4-SF.pdf) criticizing APHIS for ignoring repeated AWA violations committed by large-scale dog breeders and brokers known as “puppy mills.” Auditors visited 68 such licensees in eight states who had been cited for one or more AWA violations between 2006 and 2008. According to the report, the auditors determined that half of these breeders and brokers were later cited for additional violations. The report said that APHIS commonly waived or reduced penalties and failed to collect adequate documentation of mistreated animals, which hampered enforcement efforts. In response to questions about the OIG report, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Associated Press that “USDA will reinforce its efforts under its animal welfare responsibilities, including tougher penalties for repeat offenders and greater consistent action to strongly enforce the law.”

Although the OIG did not investigate any research facilities, APHIS intends to apply the recommendations to inspections of all regulated entities. The goal of the efforts, according to one USDA official, is to eliminate all noncompliance. In pursuit of this goal, the agency will take immediate enforcement action whenever an inspector finds a “direct” or severe violation that affects the health and well-being of the animal or could do so in the near future. Recurrences of moderate violations of the AWA may also lead to USDA enforcement action, even if the previous violation involved different animals and a different portion of the facility. Recurrent citations for relatively minor violations could also result in enforcement action, although inspectors are allowed to use their professional judgment in deciding whether to cite an item as new or a repeat violation. The AWA regulations contain an enormous amount of detail, including some requirements that are not likely to have any immediate adverse effect on the health or well-being of animals. For example if the IACUC approves a protocol in the absence of a quorum or there is peeling paint in an animal facility, these can be cited as AWA violations. APHIS has provided new instructions on how to document AWA violations in an inspection report through detailed descriptions and photographs so the agency can prosecute offenders more effectively.

It should be noted that since 2005, inspection reports have been made available to the public on an E-FOIA website 21 days after they were filed. However, if a facility disagrees with an inspector’s finding, it can make an appeal. In that case, the report will not be posted until the dispute is resolved, at which point, both the original report and a corrected version will be posted. Research institutions are encouraged to monitor inspection reports for their facility at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/efoia/7023.shtml.

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