JEFFERSON CITY — Two animal-welfare groups have sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, accusing the agency of violating the law in order to weaken enforcement of dog-breeding operations and animal-testing labs.
The lawsuit, filed Sunday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., says the federal government did not notify the public or request comments regarding two agency rules — the “Teachable Moments” rule and the “Self-Reporting” rule — in violation of the U.S. Administrative Procedure Act.
The Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, and the Ohio-based Stop Animal Exploitation Now, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, asked for an order vacating the two rules and enjoining the USDA from using the rules until the agency goes through usual rule-making avenues.
“Since 2014, the USDA has allowed puppy mills to avoid certain AWA (Animal Welfare Act) citations by instead calling them ‘teachable moments,’” said Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. “More recently, USDA adopted the Self-Reporting rule, allowing puppy mills that admit to certain AWA violations before an inspection to also avoid citation.”
USDA representatives said the department does not comment on pending litigation. Hank Grosenbacher, former president of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association, a dog-breeding industry group, said he doubted the USDA would violate rule-making laws to implement the new rules.
For nearly three years, the state has not referred any new problem breeders to the attorney general's office.
“USDA very much knows what they’re doing,” Grosenbacher said, adding the animal-rights groups were probably “sensationalizing” industry issues, “once again.”
The USDA is tasked with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, or AWA, and issuing citations to breeders who violate it.
On or about July 25, 2014, representatives with the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation attended a meeting with about 100 dog breeders, other industry insiders, the USDA and the Missouri Department of Agriculture, the lawsuit says.
“Commercial dog breeders expressed disappointment that some pet stores and brokers were refusing to purchase dogs, or were paying reduced prices, if breeders had citations on their inspection reports,” the lawsuit says.
At the meeting, the lawsuit says, “USDA announced that, moving forward, certain AWA violations would be considered ‘teachable moments’ and would not be documented on inspection reports.”
The self-reporting rule, first published in December 2017, the lawsuit says, allows breeders to self-report “non-critical” violations and immediately correct them to avoid citations in an inspection report.
“Defendants’ employment of the Self-Reporting Rule contributes to the decrease in citations issued by USDA under the AWA, and inhibits the public and consumers from making informed choices with respect to transactions involving or impacting animals,” the lawsuit says.
The groups say dog breeders have used the two rules “to circumvent the reach of state and local anti-puppy-mill legislation through obfuscating the nature and extent of their AWA violations.”
Grosenbacher, owner of Heartland Sales in Cabool, Mo., said USDA inspectors cracked down on breeders following a 2010 inspector general report that found lax oversight of the industry. The “teachable moments” rule was implemented in response to that over-correction in the system, he said.
Instead of writing a citation that would appear in an inspection report, the inspector can order a breeder to fix a minor problem, getting the breeder into compliance with the law.
As an example, Grosenbacher said an inspector could find a broken wire, which could be a citation.
“At that point the inspector can say ‘here’s what I’m gonna do. Fix it,’” he said. “Obviously the kennel owner is going to fix that. Problem solved.”
Grosenbacher said the self-reporting rule is more recent, but was implemented using the same rationale. He said he did not recall public postings before the rules were implemented.
Grosenbacher said groups like the the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation “want zero tolerance. Zero.”
Missouri has long been a target of animal-welfare groups because of the prevalence of breeding operations here. In 2010, when voters approved new regulations on kennels, there were 1,490 licensed breeders in Missouri.
That declined to 785 by 2015 after the kennels had to meet higher standards and the state Department of Agriculture and the attorney general’s office gained new enforcement powers. By last year, the number of licensed breeders had increased to 893.
A spokeswoman with the Missouri Department of Agriculture said last year the agency has emphasized getting “people into compliance” over issuing citations.
“For us, the inspection process is a chance to get people into compliance, not necessarily to just refer them to the attorney general’s office,” Sami Jo Freeman said. “And for us, that process is really about identifying ways they can improve their facility.”