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As part of a settlement in a lawsuit, in early January 2022, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) agreed to disclose on its website records related to the treatment of animals in US slaughter plants. This is a huge achievement by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and Farm Sanctuary, which filed the suit. 

The case started in 2018 when these organisations, after using the Freedom of Information Act to request records from the USDA, made an official complaint against this federal department for failing to proactively disclose records relating to the enforcement of two laws, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. In these records, inhumane treatment of animals at slaughter plants across the country would be documented, and therefore not disclosing them proactively or on request could be considered part of a cover-up.

Erin Sutherland, staff attorney for AWI’s farm animal program, said: “This is the biggest step in improving government transparency at slaughter since the USDA began disclosing these records pursuant to FOIA…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.”

Emily von Klemperer, general counsel for Farm Sanctuary, said: “The USDA’s agreement to proactively post slaughter records is a huge victory…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.”

To honour the settlement (which includes covering the legal costs of the two animal protection organisations), the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service have now posted the disputed records on its website for anyone to access. Private citizens and non-profit organisations can now use this data to develop campaigns exposing the cruelty taking place in slaughterhouses (as was the case with the exposé of humane slaughter violations conducted by the Animal Welfare Institute).  In a separate lawsuit, AWI and Farm Sanctuary are suing the USDA regarding the systematic mistreatment of poultry at slaughter. Using the legal system to challenge governments is a powerful campaigning tactic that can achieve remarkable results.