In a huge win for transparency and accountability, the US Department of Agriculture has agreed to publicly disclose on its website records related to the treatment of animals in US slaughter plants to settle a lawsuit filed by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and Farm Sanctuary. Marian Payson, a federal magistrate judge for the US District Court for the Western District of New York, approved the settlement yesterday.
The 2018 complaint alleged that the USDA failed to proactively disclose records relating to the enforcement of two laws—the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act—as required by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 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.
AWI and Farm Sanctuary are represented by Nick Lawton of the Washington, DC public interest firm Eubanks & Associates, PLLC. The settlement comes after the court denied the USDA’s motion to dismiss the case in 2019. Under the agreement, the USDA is responsible for paying the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.
“This is the biggest step in improving government transparency at slaughter since the USDA began disclosing these records pursuant to FOIA,” said Erin Sutherland, staff attorney for AWI’s farm animal program. “Thousands of slaughterhouse records are now readily available to concerned citizens and animal advocacy groups who wish to monitor USDA enforcement without waiting months or even years for the department to respond to FOIA requests.”
“The USDA’s agreement to proactively post slaughter records is a huge victory,” said Emily von Klemperer, general counsel for Farm Sanctuary. “These records routinely expose inhumane treatment of animals at slaughter facilities and are critical to our efforts to educate the public and hold the agency accountable to enforce what minimal legal protections farm animals have.”
The posted records, dating back to January of 2017 and available now on the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service website, provide a rare window into a heavily guarded aspect of food production. Previously, AWI has used this information to conduct some of its key campaign work surrounding the treatment of animals at slaughter, such as publicizing repeated violations of inhumane handling at individual slaughter plants, and petitioning the USDA to update its slaughter regulations to mitigate needless suffering.
In a separate lawsuit, AWI and Farm Sanctuary are suing the USDA to address the systematic mistreatment of poultry at slaughter, which can compromise food safety and meat quality in violation of the Poultry Products Inspection Act. Much of the information critical to this lawsuit was gleaned from the records now made accessible under this settlement. A federal judge ruled in October that the lawsuit will move forward.