Making information about diseases on British Columbia farms secret will better protect the public, said Agriculture Minister Don McRae. The NDP's critic on the file, Lana Popham, said that approach is unfair to consumers and to other farmers.
"We want the producers to make sure they are submitting samples voluntarily," McRae said in a May 10 interview. "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." The measures are included in the Animal Health Act, which got second reading in the Legislature on May 2 and is expected to pass by the end of the month.
Farmers may choose to hide disease outbreaks if they believe the information will become public, McRae said. "The reality is we don't want a scenario where farmers are going to take a potentially ill animal, deal with it themselves, and not make sure we have that information for the safety of the general public and the safety of animals in British Columbia."
I'd want to know: Popham
The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act already includes sections that allow the government to keep information secret if its release could harm a businesses interests, said the NDP's Popham.
"Really, [with] disclosure of diseases I think the public has a right to know," she said. "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. I don't understand why the value of that being a secret."
As for the minister's argument that farmers may be tempted to hide disease outbreaks, she said, "That sounds to me like the minister doesn't think he can trust farmers."
The bill would keep the information out of the hands of independent scientists who might have a view or an interpretation that differs from the government's, she said. "It seems like it's a tightening up of information," she said. "It's not open or accountable or transparent which is the way we're supposed to be going."
Popham said the bill also appears to restrict people, including reporters, from identifying farms or farmers in relation to an animal disease. "From what we can see it certainly leads to the conclusion that you guys could be fined or put in jail for talking to a farmer around a disease outbreak," she said. "You're not allowed to communicate about a disease outbreak anymore."
Blanket override unjustified: commissioner
Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham criticized the Animal Health Act for being overly broad and for changing the balance between the need for confidentiality and the public's right to information that's set out in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
"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," Denham wrote in a letter to McRae.
She said the measures seem to stem from a case where her office in 2010 ordered the government to release the results of random audits looking for diseases or sea lice on fish farms.
David Lane, the executive director of the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, which made the fish farm request some 10 years ago, said the province still hasn't released the information his organization sought.
"Every road block has been put in our way to get information on disease and sea lice on specific farms," he said. "It's our contention all along that information the government has on diseases that can be transferred to the wild, to fish in particular, is information that must be accessible to the public, the media and scientists who want to look in more detail at the implications for wild species."
The changes included in the Animal Health Act should not, however, affect information about fish farms since responsibility for them transferred to the federal government in 2010, he said. "It is very unclear at this point how the federal government is going to handle the issues of disease on salmon farms and reporting and public transparency."
The Animal Health Act is one of three B.C. bills The Tyee reported Denham had criticized in recent weeks for overriding how the FIPPA balances privacy and transparency. She has since also raised similar concerns about the Coastal Ferry Amendment Act.