USDA hire of former HSUS attorney raises questions about agency agenda

Jan 20, 2012

Late last year, USDA made waves throughout animal agriculture when an internal memo announcing an upcoming “animal welfare scientific forum” was inadvertently released. The memo indicated that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the hundred million dollar animal advocacy non-profit, would play a central role in the event, including helping to set the agenda.

Dated Oct. 6 and signed by USDA Undersecretary Edward Avalos, the USDA memo was publically outed by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-KS, who, on Nov. 2, delivered a scathing critique of USDA’s apparent favoritism for the wealthy animal rights group over other interested stakeholders on the Senate floor.

“The ironic thing about this forum is that there’s little science involved.” Moran told the Senate.

“No mention is made in the memo of asking any agricultural organization or animal scientist for preplanning assistance,” Moran continued. “According to the memo, HSUS is going to set the agenda for this forum.”

The forum was proposed by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is charged— among its other duties— with administering the Animal Welfare Act.

In the memo, which was provided to WLJ by Agri- Pulse, APHIS stated that HSUS’ goal is to influence USDA policy on “critical and sensitive welfare issues” and takes the position that USDA should seek to “engage animal advocacy groups in ongoing scientific reviews and discussions of animal welfare issues related to APHIS program activities.”

The memo further noted that in past meetings with APHIS, HSUS had “consistently raised concerns regarding horse slaughter, horse transport, and [USDA Wildlife Services’] use of lethal control methods.” As a means of addressing their concerns, HSUS representative John Hadidian recommended that an animal welfare working group be formed. The memo recommended expanding the group to establish a forum consisting of other APHIS programs, animal advocacy groups, and other stakeholders “including industry groups ... and State and Federal partners.”

Despite the fact the memo mentions industry groups would be included in the forum, Moran was clearly unimpressed, stressing the HSUS’ special status as an organizer of the forum agenda was tantamount to favoritism.

“[HSUS] would have input into the topics to be discussed, potential speakers for the topics, dates and times for the forum, how the forum should run, et cetera… Even if the agriculture industry is later invited to the event, agriculture would already have the cards … stacked against them,” Moran stated.

News of the APHIS memo quickly spread across the internet, prompting agricultural organizations, animal breeder groups, and sportsman’s clubs to denounce what many of them claimed to be an overly-cozy relationship between the current administration and anti-agriculture special interest groups.

“We know that HSUS is an activist organization that we think is being given a little bit of an undue preference here with this announcement,” Colin Woodall, vice president of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, was quoted as saying. “And we think the administration really needs to make sure that true stakeholders in this game are the ones who are able to provide this type of counsel and input.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was quick to downplay the outcry as a misunderstanding. In an address given at a farm broadcasters meeting in Kansas City, he indicated that USDA’s intent all along had been to bring multiple stakeholders to the table to canvas a diversity of viewpoints on animal welfare.

“[U]nfortunately there was a misunderstanding about a certain memo that got out,” Visack explained. “[E]ssentially what we’re talking about is a process by which a lot of people are going to be at the table, and we’re going to have a conversation between all those folks at the table.”

In a subsequent letter addressed to “APHIS Stakeholders,” APHIS Administrator Dr. Gregory Parham also stated that the intent of the forum had always been inclusive. Although Parham maintained that the intent of APHIS was to bring together a wide range of viewpoints, he expressed regret at the exclusive treatment of HSUS, conceding that “it was an error to suggest including only HSUS and other animal welfare advocacy organizations in pre-planning activities for the forum,” and added that all stakeholders would be included in planning stages in the future.

The forum has not yet taken place. If and when it does (APHIS currently has no information on when it will be scheduled), USDA has publicly committed itself to staging a balanced event. But suspicions of favoritism within USDA’s animal welfare activities have continued to roil with the recent discovery that Sarah L. Conant, chief of APHIS’ new Animal Health and Welfare Enforcement Branch, was formerly an HSUS litigator. The revelation has led many voices within animal industries to declare that her presence within USDA represents an unacceptable conflict of interest.

There certainly is little question of Conant’s animal advocacy bone fides. Conant, who was appointed to her APHIS position in August 2010, spent four years working for HSUS as a litigating attorney where she focused on farm animal issues, according to HSUSwatchdog group Humane Watch. She is known to have represented HSUS in litigation over organic labeling marketing, disclosure of information under the Animal Welfare Act, and in a lawsuit against USDA regarding downed cattle.

In a 2007 interview with Virginia Law, an online publication of the University of Virginia (UVa) Law School, Conant discussed her work at HSUS.

“More than 95 percent of the animals we interact with on a daily basis are farm animals,” she told Virginia Law. She explained that HSUS attorneys work both with lawmakers and in court to change laws that affect the lives of millions of farm production animals, a process which must go state by state because there are very few federal laws regarding farm animal protection, Virginia Law reported Conant as saying.

As a law student at UVa, Conant also founded the Virginia Animal Law Society (VALS), a student group which kept close ties to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a professional animal advocacy group which promotes legislatively creating an “animal bill of rights.”

According to the constitution of Conant’s group, their activities “shall at all times be consistent with the purposes of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. No legal action will be initiated, endorsed, or supported in the name of VALS, without prior approval of ALDF.” Of course, all administrative hires must have a background, but Conant’s track record with HSUS and other animal rights groups may feel too close for comfort for those in animal production. Although HSUS does not promote its agenda with the radical tactics preferred by organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, many producers view HSUS as advancing a similar anti-agriculture agenda with a more socially acceptable approach. True or false, this much is certain: those in production animal agriculture will be inclined to view Conant’s presence in APHIS as a case of the fox in the hen house. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent