B.C. law requires animal disease outbreak reports be kept secret under threat of massive fines

·National Affairs Contributor

We've all seen this TV scenario: Investigators are racing to track down the source of a deadly virus, or maybe a terrorist nuclear device, threatening a big city.

But they're keeping the publicity lid on because they don't want people to panic.

Well, a move by the B.C. government feels a little like that.

Freedom of information advocates are criticizing provisions of the province's new Animal Health Act which forbids anyone, including journalists, from reporting an animal disease outbreak.

The Vancouver Province reported the law requires anyone — a journalist, say, or a farm or lab employee — who learns about an outbreak must keep the details secret or face "administrative penalties," bureaucratise for fines, of up to $75,000.

According to the Province, a section of the law states: "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."

The B.C. Agriculture Ministry's news release on the proposed Animal Health Act said it aims to protect the province's reputation as a source of safe and healthy foods and animals.

"The changes would help prevent the spread of animal disease as well as improving the response to a potential outbreak," the ministry said.

"Our government is absolutely committed to ensuring B.C. uses the best disease prevention methods possible, and is prepared to immediately and effectively respond to an animal health emergency," said Agriculture Minister Don McCrae.

The ministry said the legislation brings British Columbia in line with other provinces and trading partners, though it's not clear from the news release whether the secrecy provision is used elsewhere in Canada.

The law is supported by poultry and cattle producers' associations.

But British Columbia's Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, criticized the act for being overly broad and tipping the balance between the need for confidentiality and the public's legal right to information, Tyee.ca reported.

"Though it may be in the interest of your ministry and of farmers to protect test data in the ministry's possession from disclosure, it is not clear how the public policy interests carefully balanced in (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act) are served by a blanket override of this nature," Denham wrote in a letter to McRae.

McRae defended the provision, telling the Tyee it ensures producers will submit test samples voluntarily and not try to conceal outbreaks and try to deal with them alone.

"We'd hate to have a scenario where farmers are fearful that the data they give government would be used in a way that's out of their control," McRae said.

But NDP agriculture critic Lisa Popham said the public has a right to know.

"As a consumer I would want to know, and certainly as a farmer I would want to know about other things going on in agriculture," she told the Tyee, dismissing McRae's argument that farmers might be tempted to hide outbreaks to protect their business.

"That sounds to me like the minister doesn't think he can trust farmers."

B.C. poultry operations underwent massive culls in 2004 and 2009 because of bird flu outbreaks.

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