BC Law Could Hide Animal Disease Outbreaks
British Columbia’s Ministry of Agriculture says its proposed changes to the Animal Health Act “will ensure B.C.’s reputation as a producer of safe and healthy foods and animals.” It will also punish anyone who leaks news of a disease outbreak on a farm with fines up to $75,000 and a possible two-year prison sentence.
That language is buried in the first major re-write of the Animal Health Act since 1948. For the most part, the act is a detailed strategy for dealing with animal disease. When outbreaks affect companies such as Tyson and Cargill, they are major safety concerns for consumers.
So updating the Animal Health Act to ensure all disease outbreaks are accurately and quickly reported and dealt with is a responsible thing to do. Most of the revised act addresses safety concerns.
What has set alarm bells ringing are provisions giving government complete control over what information is released and applying stiff penalties for any leaks. The wording of Part 3 of the act means journalists cannot even access details through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, (FOI) the usual avenue for accessing information held behind closed government doors.
Precautionary Principle Weighted Toward Business
Writing in The Province, Ethan Baron characterized this move as “duct-taping shut the mouths of any citizens — or journalists — who would publicly identify the location of an outbreak of agriculture-related disease such as the deadly bird flu.”
Agriculture Critic Lana Popham says FOI “is being turned into a piece of Swiss cheese.” When she challenged Minister Don McRae on the provisions that make sharing information a punishable offense, he insisted they did not extend to media or independent scientists. However, as the act is written, anyone giving them information is liable to fines or jail time, so the minister’s verbal assurance is less than reassuring.
This is yet another example of the precautionary principle’s being applied to industry rather than public interest. Whistleblowers, be they farm workers, government employees or anyone else with inside information, will face stiff penalties for leaking any of their concerns.
Bill Vanderspek, manager of the Chicken Marketing Board, says,
An animal-health emergency can be devastating to producers who have invested their entire lives in producing the best possible foods for British Columbians, and the communities they are part of.
A Balancing Act
Vanderspek is right. Even the suspicion of a disease outbreak can cost a farmer her livelihood or close the doors of a major processing plant. On the other hand, public safety should always trump the needs of private business.
Still, Minister McRae makes a valid point in his letter responding to Ethan Baron’s column, when he says:
The farmers and veterinarians that I have talked to agree that the best way to ensure that disease outbreaks are reported early is to assure farmers that their information will be treated in a strictly confidential fashion. The new Animal Health Act does that.
In many ways, animal health records are as personal to owners as are their own health records. However, disclosure of this information will be guided by public safety and with the proper context so as not to harm the reputation and livelihood of the families that make their living as farmers.
So what do you think, Care2 readers? Will the health and safety of British Columbians be helped or harmed by the provisions that guard the confidentiality of information concerning disease outbreaks?
Related Care2 Stories
Photo credits: Thinkstock