The US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service sent a letter last month to organizations regulated under the Animal Welfare Act announcing a pilot program that will sometimes alert facilities that inspectors are coming, The Washington Post reported yesterday (May 17). Until now, such inspections have been unannounced.
In the letter, Bernadette Juarez, the deputy administrator of animal care at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), writes that alerting facilities ahead of inspections “improves the efficiency of our inspection program and improves the humane treatment of animals,” according to The Post. Juarez was not explicit regarding which facilities will be warned, saying only that “certain situations involving certain facilities” would fall under the new policy. “[W]e have no intention of eliminated unannounced inspections,” she writes (emphasis in original), adding that warning facilities of upcoming inspections will “enhance communication and collaboration.”
Advocates for animal welfare are concerned the new policy will give offenders the opportunity to straighten up just for inspections or even encourage poor adherence to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). “[I]t is conceivable that facilities that are not prone to AWA violations may become lax in their adherence to animal welfare standards if they are assured when USDA inspectors will be visiting,” writes Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), in an email to The Scientist. “It is critical that unannounced inspections by the agency are maintained, this is an extremely important oversight tool.”
The pilot program represents a departure from decades of practice in which facilities had no advanced warning that inspections were imminent. In the letter, Juarez writes that the agency “has not made a final decision about using announced inspections” (emphasis in original).
“The USDA said in the letter that they wanted to increase compliance with the AWA,” John Goodwin, senior director of the HSUS’s Stop Puppy Mills Campaign, tells The Scientist. “There is some perverse logic going on there, in that people [will] know that they have to hide injured and suffering animals and clean up because inspectors are coming in three days.”
In March, Congress ordered the USDA to resume posting complete animal welfare reports on its website. The agency had blacked out an online database that included information on animal welfare and enforcement actions under the Animal Welfare Act. PETA and the Humane Society of the United States had both filed lawsuits against the agency related to the blackout.