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BC commissioner critical of animal health secrecy measures

Information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham has sent her second letter this week criticizing a British Columbia government bill.

In a May 3 letter to Agriculture Minister Don McRae, she said the Animal Health Act would "remove the public’s right to access various records regarding animal testing, including actions and reports relating to animal disease management."

The clauses seem to be a response to an order the commissioner made for the ministry to release the results of random audits related to the presence of disease on fish farms, Denham's letter said.

"This is a matter of deep concern considering the importance of disease management measures, and the need for openness and accountability in the monitoring and enforcement of such measures," she said.

The act unnecessarily overrides the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which sets the legal bounds of what government information may and may not be released. The FIPPA balances the public's right to know against individual and commercial interests in confidentiality, she said.

"While this [2010 commissioner's] Order may be the basis for the ministry’s desire for greater confidentiality of such test data, the Bill as drafted would result in the protection of records well beyond the scope of those disclosed pursuant to that Order," she said. "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 FIPPA are served by a blanket override of this nature."

Earlier in the week, The Tyee reported, Denham criticized the "overly broad" purposes for the collection, use and disclosure of personal information set out in the Pharmaceutical Services Act the legislature is debating.

"This is starting to be a pattern," said Vincent Gogolek, the executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association advocacy group.

The government is either not consulting the commissioner before bringing forward legislation, or else they're ignoring her advice, he said. "Either way it's not looking good."

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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