Total elimination of brucellosis: For decades, that’s been the goal of the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA), a private, nonprofit organization of livestock producers, state veterinarians, and livestock bureaucrats. Every year, the group delivers its recommendations to the USDA’s APHIS on how best to eradicate the disease.
But critics say the relationship is cozier than just an annual policy paper, and that it gives cattlemen privileged access to the federal agency.
USAHA claims in its literature that it “serves as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” while APHIS acknowledges that it works closely with “industry experts, including the Brucellosis Committee of the USAHA.”
Too closely, says D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Fund for Animals, who believes USAHA and APHIS are entangled in a conflict of interest. Eleven members of USAHA’s brucellosis committee are APHIS employees, all of them in the agency’s Veterinary Services division, which is responsible for implementing the national Brucellosis Eradication Program.
“There’s a conflict of interest because USDA employees are voting in support of resolutions that ultimately they will act on,” contends Schubert. “These are the people who dictate brucellosis policy for USDA.”
The agency admits the charge might be valid. “We’re currently reviewing our policy—there could possibly be a conflict there,” says APHIS spokesman Patrick Collins. “We need to get a good answer and we don’t have a good answer right now.”
Then there’s the matter of secrecy. Although USAHA makes recommendations on public policy with the assistance of goverment employees, its meetings are not open to the public. The Fund for Animals has questioned the legality of USAHA’s tight relationship with APHIS, charging that the association acts as a de facto federal advisory committee that consults with the agency on public policy and therefore is subject to federal open-meeting and record-keeping laws.
“There’s no question that USAHA acts as an advisory committee to the USDA,” says Schubert. “It’s a relationship that violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act and allows special interests and state vets to have a privileged relationship with a federal agency that regulates agricultural policy.”
This charge APHIS denies; the agency insists that USAHA is an independent organization and that federal advisory committee regulations do not apply.