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Court orders USDA to disclose animal testing records

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Department of Agriculture must disclose 1,017 pages of animal testing records to an animal protection organization, a D.C. federal…

The Department of Agriculture must disclose 1,017 pages of animal testing records to an animal protection organization, a D.C. federal judge ordered last week. 

The nonprofit animal rights group In Defense of Animals filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain documents relating to the USDA’s investigation of Huntingdon Life Sciences, Inc., a contract research organization with a facility in New Jersey.

The USDA initially released only 31 pages to IDA, arguing that the remaining records were fully or partially protected from release under FOIA’s exemption 4, which protects trade secrets and confidential commercial information. Specifically at issue in this case was whether the data collected during the animal studies is confidential commercial information that, if released, would cause substantial harm to HLS’s competitive position in the contract research industry.

HLS and its parent company joined the USDA as defendants, arguing that if the data were released, it would allow competitors to duplicate proprietary technology through "reverse engineering" — working backwards with a finished product to uncover the technological principles behind it.

But while the defendants met the burden of proving fierce competition among contract research organizations, they failed to prove that releasing the records would likely cause substantial competitive injury to HLS, said Judge Richard W. Roberts.

Despite lengthy testimony from two defense experts, the defendants only showed a generalized potential for competitive harm and could not demonstrate that all reasonably segregable, non-exempt material was disclosed. Defense experts’ admissions that they had not personally examined every withheld record to determine an individual risk for competitive injury proved particularly damaging to the defense.

The withheld records, 503 pages in full and 514 pages in part, include a proprietary design for animal cages, detailed physical observations of animals on active tests, postmortem examination reports, records of toxic effects, and other records that demonstrate the effect of a particular drug.