The U.S. Department of Agriculture secretly implemented a new procedure in 2019 to skirt its responsibility to animals at some research laboratories, documents obtained by Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic and covered in Science Magazine, reveal.

While dogs, rabbits, primates and other animals used in laboratories undergo painful and frightening experiments, inspectors are supposed to make sure they receive at least minimum standards of care required by the Animal Welfare Act. A full USDA inspection is supposed to involve looking at the animals and examining records and living conditions. Under the new procedure, an inspector could complete an inspection without looking at a single animal.

The documents — obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — show that the USDA instructed its inspectors to not conduct full inspections of labs accredited by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (known as AAALAC). Instead, the agency has been permitting what they called smaller “focused” inspections, in which inspectors were told they only needed to look at one of those aspects or a smaller sampling.

Even organizations that promote animal research agree that this is a problem. Failing to conduct full inspections could mislead the public into thinking that animals are being treated with proper standards of care under the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA is passing the buck to an accreditation body — AAALAC — that is not a federally regulated or enforced program.

Our vice president of Animal Research Issues for the HSUS, Kathleen Conlee, who worked at an AAALAC accredited facility in the past, says that AAALAC visits are typically carried out every three years; because they are scheduled in advance, these inspections didn’t catch things that an unscheduled USDA inspection could. While AAALAC visits did give animals some protection, she says that the lab she worked for, and many other AAALAC-accredited facilities, still had documented Animal Welfare Act violations. This demonstrates that AAALAC accreditation does not equate to animals being treated properly. What’s more, AAALAC is a private accrediting body, and its records are confidential, taking public transparency off the table for people who care about how animals in laboratories are treated.

That these “focused” inspections have been allowed to continue is just the latest revelation that shows the USDA is either failing to uphold Animal Welfare Act standards or failing to be transparent about how animals in laboratories are faring.

In 2017, under the previous administration, the USDA suddenly purged its inspections records from a public database on its website. We fought hard for the USDA to restore those records, which they finally did at a directive from Congress. This progress for public transparency would be undermined if these partial inspections are allowed to continue.

Also in 2017, the USDA proposed allowing third-party inspections of zoos, animal breeders and horse shows, among other entities it regulates. The HSUS along with other animal protection groups and tens of thousands of people opposed the move. We worked closely with nonpartisan champions Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., who led a letter signed by 77 lawmakers to then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue opposing the agency’s plan. And we helped mobilize a strong set of 184 Representatives and 38 Senators who sought a provision in that year’s funding bill directing the USDA to abandon its third-party inspections program. In 2018, the USDA publicly announced it was not going to move forward with the proposal, and that inspections would remain within the USDA. Again, this progress is undermined by allowing AAALAC to step in to fill the USDA’s role.

The USDA knows this would not sit well with the public. The agency intended to keep the information confidential and did not enlighten its stakeholders about these “focused” inspections.

We have always advocated for strong enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, and we will continue to do so. This includes pushing the USDA to conduct thorough inspections — both through our work with the agency and Congress. For years, we have worked with congressional offices to ensure that funding for the USDA is accompanied by clear directives that the USDA take its inspection and enforcement duties under the Animal Welfare Act seriously. A few weeks ago, we helped secure the support of 204 Representatives on requests for additional reforms to strengthen enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and other key animal welfare laws. We are gearing up to seek strong backing in the Senate, as well.

With a new administration in place, one that has promised to take animal care seriously, we are urging the USDA to stop using third-party inspections as a substitute and resume full annual inspections of animal research facilities by agency inspectors immediately. Anything short of this will jeopardize the power of the Animal Welfare Act to be a protective force for animals.

You can help animals in labs by urging the USDA to do full inspections.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.