Animal disease secrecy questioned

The risk of farmers protecting their operations by hiding sick animals is behind new regulations on the handling of animal disease reports.

When discovery of mad cow disease prompted 30 countries to ban imports of Canadian beef in 2003, former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein famously suggested the rancher who found an infected animal should have “shot, shovelled and shut up” rather than report the case to authorities.

The risk of farmers protecting their operations by hiding sick animals is behind strict new regulations on the handling of animal disease reports, B.C. agriculture officials say.

Agriculture Minister Don McRae introduced a new Animal Health Act amid a flood of other legislation last month. Debate has focused on measures to exempt animal disease reports from freedom of information legislation, and to impose steep fines and jail time on officials who release information on disease reports without authorization.

McRae said in an interview he has been assured by the provincial veterinarian and ministry staff that the restrictions are an important part of getting voluntary reports from farmers. Journalists, members of environmental watchdog organizations, or the effected farmers themselves can speak publicly about outbreaks without fear of penalties, he said.

NDP critics are questioning exempting animal disease reports from freedom of information law, citing objections from B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. McRae noted that a 2010 requirement for salmon farms to release regular disease inspection reports prompted the operators to stop providing samples voluntarily.

(Regulation of fish farms has since been taken over by the federal government.)

“We need to make sure we have as much information as possible from farms from Fort St. John to Vancouver Island,” McRae said. “Without data, the Animal Health Act is going to be ineffective.”

NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham said freedom of information law should apply, and the legislation goes too far in protecting the business interests of the industry.

She noted that restaurants are regularly inspected for cleanliness and the reports are made public routinely, despite the effect on the reputation of a business.