The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of Inspector General (OIG), the agency’s oversight body, has released the latest in a series of damning audit reports regarding Animal Welfare Act (AWA) implementation. See here for more information and here for the full report. Though dated June 2021, and apparently posted to the OIG’s website on June 30, it was done so quietly and has flown under the radar.
Though limited in scope due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the audit report’s findings are alarming, with the OIG concluding that the USDA “is not able to ensure the overall health and humane treatment of animals”—the very purpose of the AWA.
Vermont Law School Professor Delcianna Winders, a leading expert on the AWA, is available to discuss these findings. Winders has published numerous scholarly articles evaluating the implementation of this statute in top-ranked law review journals, and litigated many cases involving the statute. Winders frequently gives presentations on the AWA to a wide range of audiences, and consults with animal protection organizations, the media, and other scholars on the statute. In addition, she helped draft the Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act (HR 4211), currently pending in Congress, and recently testified at a Congressional briefing regarding the bill.
The latest audit report contains two key findings: First, that the “mission-critical data system” used by the USDA to track AWA inspections—the primary means of ensuring compliance with the law—was “unreliable.” Not only was the USDA unable to generate complete datasets of its own inspections, every time it attempted do so it generated a “different, incomplete dataset.” Without reliable access to data on its own inspection findings, the USDA is incapable of fulfilling Congress’s mandate that it protect animals. As noted in the report, this data system is “used to report inspection statistics to Congress; track active licensees, registrants, and non-compliant inspection reports; document facility inspections; and maintain licensee and registrant information.”
Winders explains, “Such a fundamental failure by the agency impedes its ability to fulfill its most basic function under the AWA—and the public and Congress’s ability to monitor and correct for those failures. The USDA has a long, well-documented history of failing to protect the animals, but this is a new level of ineptitude, if not malfeasance.”
Second, and in the same vein, the report found that the USDA failed to consistently address or document more than 45 percent of AWA complaints it received over a two-year period. The USDA relies on the public to report concerns about AWA violations and encourages complaints, and yet in some cases the OIG was not able to even ascertain how the USDA had responded to a complaint (if indeed it had).
Winders underscores that though this particular report focused on dog breeders, its findings of systemic failure impact all types of AWA-regulated entities and animals, including exhibitors and research facilities, and heighten longstanding concerns about the USDA’s failure to fulfill its responsibilities under the AWA.
She further notes that the report does not examine whether the OIG’s prior findings that the USDA’s enforcement of the AWA was “ineffective” because it assessed penalties were “basically meaningless” and treated by violators as “a normal cost of business, rather than a deterrent” have been addressed. In fact, she notes that AWA enforcement—which has been repeatedly condemned as inadequate by the OIG in the past—has reached all-time lows in recent years, and needs immediate attention.
Winders concludes, “This report doesn’t tell us as much as we’d like, in large part because the USDA was unable to supply even the most basic data about how—and indeed whether—it is doing its job. But what it does tell us should set off alarm bells. Simply put, this agency is not fulfilling the simple task of ensuring even minimal protections to more than a million animals used for experimentation, exhibition, and the pet trade across America. Enough is enough. For more than half a century the USDA has failed these animals. It’s time for an independent animal protection agency.”