Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters

 

B.C. law to ban information on farm outbreaks

Overrides Freedom of Information law, carries stiff penalty

May 22, 2012 Ethan Baron, The Province

B.C.'s Liberal government is poised to further choke off the flow of public information, this time with respect to disease outbreaks. The Animal Health Act, expected to be passed into law by month's end, expressly over-rides B.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, 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.

"A person must refuse, despite the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, to disclose . . . information that would reveal that a notifiable or reportable disease is or may be present in a specific place or on or in a specific vehicle," Section 16 of the Act reads.

It is quite conceivable that the provincial government, in the event of a disease outbreak at a farm, would delay releasing a warning in order to protect the farm in question or the industry it's part of.

In that event, should you as a citizen hear about the outbreak, or if you were an employee at an affected farm, you would be breaking the law by speaking publicly about it or bringing concerns to the media.

Citizens or journalists breaking the Animal Health Act but not charged with an offence can be slapped with "administrative penalties," which are fines. And the legislation contains an additional attack on rights of citizens: if you don't pay your fine, a government representative simply files a paper in court that is the same, according to Sec. 80(2) of the Act, "as if it were a judgment of the court with which it is filed." Except for the absence of a judge or any semblance of due process.

Ultimately, this legislation aims to protect businesses from disclosure of information that may harm their financial interests.

As B.C. Freedom of Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham revealed in a letter to provincial Agriculture Minister Don McRae, his ministry has expressed concern that the province's legal protection of "third-party business interests . . . does not adequately protect information related to farmers engaged in animal-health programs or subject to disease-management actions."

Ministry employees, animal-health inspectors and laboratory employees are specifically barred from disclosing information about farm-disease outbreaks.

Denham noted that it's extremely rare for a law to override freedom of information legislation. The Animal Health Act removes "the public's right to access various records regarding animal testing, including actions and reports relating to animal-disease management," Den-ham wrote.

The Animal Health Act would override another provincial law, the Offence Act. While the Offence Act caps punishment at a $2,000 fine and six months in jail for offences not drawing higher penalties in other legislation, the Animal Health Act says that section of the Offence Act doesn't apply, and lays out a punishment regime with penal-ties reaching to $75,000 fines and two years in prison. The offence of failing to keep information confidential falls among the violations drawing the highest penalties.

Carmina Gooch’s letter - To: Premier Clark; Honourable Don McRae; Lindsay Kislock; Wes Shoemaker; Lana Popham

Re: Proposed Changes to Animal Health Act

Dear Provincial Government Officials:

Like many BC residents, I was shocked to read that the “Liberal government is poised to further choke off the flow of public information, this time with respect to disease outbreaks. The Animal Health Act, expected to be passed into law by month's end, expressly over-rides B.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, 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.”  Source: The Province, 05/22/12 http://www.theprovince.com/news/information+farm+outbreaks/6657194/story.html

Do profits and protections for the agriculture industry trump all else? Is this the case of ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you?’ The powerful ag industry and its lobbyists have profited off the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of millions of billions of animals, all hidden from the public. Farm animals aren’t even accorded the Five Freedoms under the PCA Act, nor can a person be convicted of an offence in relation to an animal in distress if it results from an activity that is carried out in accordance with generally accepted practices of the industry. It appears as if all ethical concerns and moral values have  been tossed aside in order to preserve profit margins. Animal welfare, the environment, food safety, human health, and our democratic rights will further be eroded by this bill.  

Instead of more transparency and openness the Animal Health Act will muzzle "the public's right to access various records regarding animal testing, including actions and reports relating to animal-disease management.” If there is nothing to hide, why the move to more secrecy? I’m not buying the explanation by Agriculture Minister McRae that it’ll better protect the public. In actuality, it’s to keep citizens uninformed, similar to the food disparagement laws and ag-gag legislation recently passed in some US states.

A balancing act

By Don McRae, The Province May 24, 2012

Ethan Baron's column fails to recognize that the changes to the new Animal Health Act are based on best practices in disease diagnosis and control. This is particularly disappointing since I was not contacted by Mr. Baron in order to correct what I can only classify as a grievous misreading of the legislation.

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.

I assure you that the new act balances the need for protection of confidential information in the ministry's possession with the public interest in receiving timely disease information. Don McRae, Minister of Agriculture

Comment: The Animal Health Act is a rewrite of a bill that was originally passed in 1948 and was rewritten based on best practices and similar legislation in other provinces. Animal health has become a major trade issue. Bill 37 will be debated in the Legislature the week of May 28th. Dr. Alexandra Morton and the Wild Salmon People are strong vocal opponents of the proposed legislation.

May 31, 2012 update: Minister McRae explained that the original wording in Bill 37 left some ambiguity as to who a 'person' was referring to, and therefore who might be impacted by the new act, so for clarification it was amended. Support for the bill came from the BC Agriculture Council (BCAC), the province’s umbrella farm organization. It is a council of commodity groups and, through its members, represent approximately 14,000 of the 20,000 B.C. farm families who, in turn, generate 96 percent of the farm gate receipts in BC. Dr. Perry Kendall, Provincial Health Officer, Ministry of Health and Dr. Paul Kitching, Provincial Chief Veterinary Officer, Ministry of Agriculture communicated that  regardless of whether a disease infects humans or is limited to animal populations, the economic impact can be significant. It was further stated that appropriate and effective public health intervention will be facilitated and in no way compromised by the provisions of this Act.” Nonetheless, Bill 37 has been shelved. There was a huge public outcry over the last few weeks that continued to grow. Lana Popham, NDP Agriculture Critic, Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law and Elizabeth Denham, BC Information and Privacy Commissioner were among those who opposed the flawed legislation. It’s clear that we are concerned about animal disease outbreaks, and that we value free speech and open government.

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