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Animal Health Act amendment to clarify who is meant by 'a person'

The British Columbia government is clarifying who it means by "a person" in a bill aimed at restricting people from sharing information about animal diseases, but is not acting on concerns raised by the province's information and privacy commissioner.

NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham told The Tyee two weeks ago that she was concerned section 16 of the Animal Health Act would restrict reporters or members of the public from identifying farms where there was an outbreak of an animal disease.

The section said "a person must refuse ... 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."

Agriculture Minister Don McRae said at the time that reading of the bill was "alarmist" and not the government's intention. He later clarified that the section was meant like other sections of the act to apply only to people who are administering the act or who are responsible for an animal.

In an amendment expected to be introduced this morning, the definition of "a person" in section 16 will be brought into line with other sections of the act.

"We've heard from various groups 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," McRae said in a prepared statement.

"There was never any intention to include the general public, interest groups or media, but rather only persons directly involved in administering the act," he said. "While I'm confident the original wording would have passed legal muster, it just makes more sense to clear up any confusion with a simple amendment. It also reflects our government's commitment to not only engaging the public, but acting on suggested improvements."

The statement said nothing will change in the event of a confirmed disease outbreak where information will be made public either through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada or B.C.'s chief veterinarian.

In a letter dated May 3, 2012, The Tyee reported, Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham had asked McRae to remove section 16, as well as another section, of the Animal Health Act entirely. The act unnecessarily overrides the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, she wrote, and would "remove the public’s right to access various records regarding animal testing, including actions and reports relating to animal disease management."

The government's planned amendment will not address the concerns Denham raised, a ministry official said.

Update, 3:44 p.m.: Lana Popham posted a blog entry about why, despite the amendment, she will still be opposing the Animal Health Act.

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

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