Animal Research Accountability Troubles Continue
Having accurate information about the use of animals in experiments is critical for advancing NAVS’ efforts to educate our supporters, members of the general public and policymakers. But collecting this information in a timely fashion continues to remain a challenge.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) features, on its website, the Animal Care Public Search Tool. This is an interactive database intended to give the public access to data regarding facilities regulated under the Animal Welfare Act. Unfortunately, over the years, many features of the tool, particularly those that gave the public the ability to run customized queries and obtain data instantaneously, were disabled.
Thanks in no small part to the efforts of NAVS supporters, aspects of the search tool have been restored, although it is still lacking much of the necessary information used to track animal use. As a result, the public has to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain that information.
NAVS has been using the FOIA Annual Report released by the USDA to track how effective the FOIA approach has been in getting the public the information that it requested. While some improvements were noted from 2019 to 2020, we are disappointed to report that using FOIAs to obtain information on animal use still takes an unreasonable amount of time.
APHIS began Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 with 1,233 pending FOIA requests, up from 1,142 the previous year. They received an additional 1,193 requests (down 13% from the previous year), processed 1,810 requests (up 40% from the previous year) and ended the year with 616 requests still pending (down 50% from the previous year).
Individuals filing FOIA requests with the hope of obtaining results in a timely fashion continue to wait for a very long time before receiving the records that they have requested.
On average, it took 166 days to receive a response to a simple FOIA request in FY20. While this is an improvement from the 249 days it took to receive information for a simple request in FY19, on average, individuals filing simple FOIA requests are still waiting upwards of six months for a reply. (Simple requests are those that the agency places in its “fastest track” based on the low volume and/or simplicity of records requested.) Six months is a long time to wait for data—especially for data that used to be available almost instantaneously using the previous Animal Care Search Tool.
For more complex record requests, APHIS response time increased even further, from 464 days on average in FY19 to 475 days in FY20.
Because of these lengthy delays, the public is not able to obtain information on animal use and abuse in a timely fashion, making much of the information outdated by the time it is eventually received.
While NAVS continues to fight for faster access to this information, you can help keep the pressure on, as well. Contact the USDA asking for improvements to be made to the Animal Care Public Search Tool, specifically changes that enable more customized searches to reduce the need for individuals to file FOIA requests. Such a tool would save government agencies time and money by greatly reducing the necessity of responding to most FOIA requests by making the information available to the public from the onset—and would allow us to accurately and effectively speak about animal issues and to advocate for animals in a timelier fashion.