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USDA sued for scrubbing animal abuse reports from its website

A coalition of leading animal-protection groups — including the Beagle Freedom Project, Born Free USA, PETA, and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals — along with public health advocacy group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Harvard Animal Law & Policy Fellow Delcianna Winders — filed a lawsuit Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to compel the U.S. Department of Agriculture to return to its website all records related to puppy mills, laboratories, roadside zoos, traveling animal shows, and other enterprises that use and exploit animals. Such records are required to be publicly available.

"Our lawsuit seeks to compel the USDA to reinstate the records, which it had no right to remove from its website in the first place," Winders says. "The government should not be in the business of hiding animal abusers and lawbreakers from public scrutiny."

The lawsuit contends that the sudden February 3 removal of these documents was illegal because the Freedom of Information Act requires agencies to post frequently requested records on their websites. The USDA itself has acknowledged that inspection reports were the most frequently requested records before they were made available online years ago.

These inspection reports, research facility reports, and other records, the complaint explains, are essential for the groups' work to expose cruelty to animals and to monitor the USDA's enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The removal of the records also jeopardizes state and local laws prohibiting sales of dogs by businesses with AWA violations.

The lawsuit refutes the USDA's suggestion that it's sufficient for the agency to provide records in response to FOIA requests, a process that can take months or even years. According to the USDA's most recent annual FOIA report, it can take as long as 836 days — more than two years — to process a "simple" FOIA request and up to 157 days for an expedited one.