Monday, December 18, 2017

APHIS-AC, the Vivisectors' New Confessor

Oversight and enforcement of compliance with the Animal Welfare Act (Title 7 – Agriculture. Chapter 54 – Transportation, Sale, and Handling of Certain Animals Sections 2131 - 2159) is largely the responsibility of a unit of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, named Animal Care. The usual abbreviation in the literature is APHIS-AC. AWA is shorthand for the Animal Welfare Act.

APHIS-AC has become a sort of guard dog for those who use animals, an version of what is known as regulatory capture, defined by Wikipedia as a form of corruption:
Specifically, it is a government failure which occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.

Over the years, the agency has removed evidence of AWA violations and then grudgingly restored the records only when forced to do so by threats of lawsuits or legal settlements. The records have typically been restored in a significantly degraded form.

Over the years, the agency has occasionally taken steps to impede the public’s access to the records it has been forced to provide. Today, on the agency’s web page, “AWA Inspection and Annual Reports,” one can review a limited set of records. The agency has been captured by those it is supposed to be regulating.

The agency did at one time seem to honor its responsibility to the public. Now, not so much. It hasn’t always been like this. At one time the records were kept for years and easily searched. Why should purportedly public records be password protected and non-searchable? Moreover, available electronic data storage space is now essentially unlimited. And yet, APHIS-AC deletes records after only three years. Some animals in labs are used for decades; repeated violations that cause them harm are expunged. This is not much different than police destroying records of child abuse to protect the abusing parents. Records demonstrating a pattern of federal law violations are routinely destroyed.

Over the years, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General has evaluated APHIS-AC’s enforcement of the AWA. The OIG has reported that the agency does a very poor job of monitoring and enforcing the AWA. See:

1/1995 - APHIS Animal Care Program Inspection and Enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.
(Report No. 33600-1-Ch.)

10/20/2005 - APHIS Animal Care Program Inspection and Enforcement Activities.
(Report No: 33002-03-SF.)

05/25/2010 - Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Animal Care Program, Inspections of Problematic Dealers.
(Report No: 33002-4-SF.)

12/18/2014 - Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Oversight of Research Facilities.
(Report No. 33601-0001-41.)

06/02/2017 - APHIS: Animal Welfare Act - Marine Mammals (Cetaceans).
(Report No. 33601-0001-31.)

The NIH Office of Laboratory Welfare (OLAW) is responsible for overseeing and enforcing compliance with the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. Enforcement is pro forma. OLAW almost never inspects a lab or verifies claims made by NIH-funded institutions. When the local oversight committee, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) discovers a violation of the policy, it is reported in a letter or phone call to OLAW along with a statement briefly explaining what the institution is doing to avoid a repeat violation. OLAW seems to always say, “Sounds good.” And that’s the end of it.

Not too long ago, it was discovered that OLAW was not sharing this information with APHIS-AC. A well-known watchdog organization began using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain copies of OLAW’s correspondence with the labs and then filing complaints about the violations with APHIS-AC which is legally required to investigate allegations of violations of the AWA. And, when they did, they found records of the violations which in turn required them to cite the institutions. This did not sit well with the vivisectors or APHIS-AC. The agency was unhappy at being forced to do its job.

A couple interagency agreements resulted, but still, the labs’ animal welfare violations were at risk of public exposure. Now, APHIS seems to have come up with a plan to better shield the labs; they call it: “Incentives for Identifying, Reporting, Correcting, and Preventing Noncompliance with the Animal Welfare Act.”

Those incentives? Not being cited in writing. It appears that the agency has come up with a plan to collude with the industry to make it even harder for the public to find out what is happening to the animals. A friend likened the new system to the Catholic confessional -- what’s said remains confidential and absolution is all but certain.

It seems to work like this: A lab official learns that a violation has occurred. A call is made to APHIS, just as a call will be made to OLAW. APHIS makes a record of the call without mentioning the name of the facility. The violation will not show up on an inspection report. When an annual inspection occurs, a violation will not be mentioned in the inspection report if there was no mention of a violation in the last inspection report and the lab had previously self-reported it.

Additionally, apparently, unless the inspector witnesses the violation during the actual inspection, the violation will not be recorded in the inspection report.

One thing is clear: the animal welfare records of the labs are going to show improvement, it will be much more difficult to recognize a pattern of violations, and the apparent reduction of recorded violations will make APHIS look like it is doing a better job. Yes sir, its win-win for everyone except the few people who take the time to try and find out what’s really going on in the labs and the animals.

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