Over the past two weeks, British Columbia has been in a tizzy over the proposed Animal Health Care Act, legislation that prohibits certain parties from requesting and divulging information pertaining to animal disease outbreaks. Specifically, the proposed law states:
“a person must refuse, despite the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, to disclose: (a) information that would identify the person responsible for an animal or an animal product or byproduct;
(b) information that would identify an animal or an animal product or byproduct that is located at or in a specific place or on or in a specific vehicle;
(c) 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”
Legislation that proposes to override the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) intrigues yours truly, so further investigation was necessary. It turns out, that overriding FIPPA, or potentially limiting the distribution of information, incenses many. The British Columbian provincial government is in a difficult situation: it must determine how to protect the public health of its citizens and the financial health of its farmers.
Why Was The Law Proposed?
According to Agricultural Minister Don McRae, farmers hesitate to report health issues to government authorities because they fear that the negative media backlash will harm their businesses. Suppressing infectious disease information prevents appropriate treatment and, ultimately, puts other animals and humans at risk.
Why Were Citizens Outraged?
People have a few issues with the law. First, the wording is troubling. In the original document, “person” was not defined, so it was implied that all persons were prohibited from speaking about where an outbreak is occurring, what animals are involved and what agent is causing disease. The concern was that without reporters bringing health issues to light, and citizens being at liberty to discuss them, people would not be able to protect themselves from infectious disease threats.
Second, as reported in The Province, some believe this bill delays the issuance of warnings for the benefit of the farm’s, or industry’s, financial interests. Elizabeth Denham, the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, believes that the act does not balance the public’s right to information and “individual and commercial interests of confidentiality.”
Further, those who disregarded this law would be subject to a hefty fine ($75,000) and possible jail time.
McRae explains that the intention is not to prohibit the media or citizenry from discussing outbreaks, rather, section 16 of the bill (quoted above) prohibits anyone involved in the administration of the Animal Health Care Act from discussing outbreaks. The proposed bill was amended and now clarifies that “persons engaged in the administration of this Act” include current and former employees of the ministry, current and former health inspectors, employees and administrators of laboratories used for diagnostic purposes. So, as Mark Hume points out in The Globe and Mail, the bill “seeks to silence government officials involved with a disease incident – not others in the public realm.” And if stories in the media somehow appear, no government official will be able to confirm or deny the information provided.
Why Might Farmers Support This Bill?
The concern that negative media may harm financial safety is not unfounded. As reported by British Columbia’s provincial health and veterinary officers, the mad cow (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE) scare in 2003 cost the Canadian economy approximately $6 billion and devastated the cattle industry. A year later, British Columbia’s Fraser Valley experienced an avian influenza outbreak that caused the culling of 17 million birds by the federal government, and emptied over 410 commercial poultry farms. The costs of this outbreak exceeded $380 million.
Recently, one case of mad cow was found in a dairy cow in California. Despite USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford’s statement that the animal was “never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health,” his reminder that BSE cannot be transmitted through milk, and his confirmation that this was an atypical case- a case in which the prion disease occurred spontaneously, not as the result of infection through feed, two major South Korean retailers still halted the sale of U.S. beef due to fear.
If farmers feel safe, they will report disease events and, ideally, the government will respond to infectious disease outbreaks in a time efficient manner. There is a need for a safe communication system; one in which proper diagnostics are used and there is little risk for farmers who communicate potential disease events to the proper authorities. Without this, farmers are threatened. They are asked to balance the financial safety of themselves and their families with public health, and that is a tough position to be in.