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New York, Aug. 23, 2018 — The Animal Welfare Institute and Farm Sanctuary sued the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) today for failing to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for department records related to the treatment of animals in US slaughter plants. The lawsuit is based on a 2016 amendment to FOIA that requires federal agencies to proactively post records that are subject to frequent requests.
The suit, filed in the US District Court for the Western District of New York, asks the USDA to proactively post records relating to the enforcement of two laws dating to the 1950s—the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. Such records expose inhumane treatment of animals at slaughter plants across the country, including incidents of workers throwing chickens and improperly stunning pigs and cattle, and transporters abandoning trucks full of animals for hours in hot weather. Animal advocacy groups review hundreds of these records annually to monitor USDA enforcement and produce reports, action alerts and policy recommendations based on the findings.
“The USDA’s continued failure to timely provide records of enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act undermines our organizations’ efforts to protect farm animals from cruelty,” said Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. “Given that the USDA has proven to be ineffective at enforcing these laws, our organizations are compelled to take action to provide transparency and oversight.”
Delayed disclosure of records hinders the groups’ ability to identify patterns that contribute to animal suffering at slaughter. For example, in June 2018 the Animal Welfare Institute received records related to poultry slaughter incidents that occurred nearly a year before. Contained in the records were reports of several incidents resulting from seemingly negligent transport procedures, including one at a Texas farm in which 1,500 birds died before arriving at a slaughter plant.
“Unfortunately, the delay associated with fulfilling these requests renders the records almost useless by the time they are received,” said Dena Jones, director of the Animal Welfare Institute’s farm animal program. “Because it can take many months to receive the information, our options for protecting the interests of farm animals at slaughter are seriously curtailed.”
Recently, after reviewing USDA records in response to a FOIA request, the Animal Welfare Institute sent a letter asking the USDA to issue letters of concern recommending that state officials investigate these incidents for possible violations of state animal cruelty statutes. Had the Animal Welfare Institute received access to the information sooner, it would have been able to call attention to the problem and possibly prevent similar incidents from occurring.
Proactively posting animal handling records would improve transparency and safety of the nation’s food supply, as well as increase the efficiency of the department’s FOIA process. The information would be useful to the agriculture industry in evaluating animal care standards, to government officials in creating and enforcing policy, and to consumers in making decisions about what products they purchase.
The Animal Welfare Institute and Farm Sanctuary are represented by William Lawton of the Washington, DC public interest firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks.