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Biosecurity bill draws questions from Senate ag committee

Senate scrutiny has begun on Bill C-275, the private member’s bill to amend the Health of Animals Act, which would increase fines for those who unlawfully enter livestock barns and processing facilities.

But some senators suggested it should apply to everyone who could potentially threaten biosecurity.

The bill was ushered through Parliament by Conservative agriculture critic John Barlow, and he was the first witness to address the Senate committee on agriculture and forestry.

“What we tried to do with this legislation was form a bill that would make it an offence to enter, without lawful authority or excuse, a place in which animals are kept if doing so could result in the animals being exposed to a disease or toxic substance capable of affecting or contaminating those animals,” Barlow said.

The bill arose from a 2019 incident in his riding when about 40 people entered a free-range turkey barn near Fort Macleod. They then reported themselves to the police.

Barlow said the same protesters were on an Abbotsford, B.C. hog barn the previous week.

“They were not following biosecurity protocols. They could have easily been carrying a disease from one farm to another,” he said.

After an incident in Quebec, rotovirus appeared for the first time in 40 years, he said, and the California government has said protestors could have spread avian flu and caused the death of 250,000 birds.

“We see African swine fever, avian flu and foot and mouth disease, and we certainly see what’s happening with H5N1 and dairy cattle,” Barlow said. “We have to take every step we possibly can to ensure that our livestock, food supply and food security are protected.”

Alberta senator Paula Simons wondered whether the bill is trying to prevent protests.

“I guess the question at the heart of this is, Is this a law that uses the legitimate concerns about animal health as a way to keep out all protesters whether they are actually a risk to the animals or not?” she asked.

Barlow said people such as feed deliverers go through biosecurity protocols but protestors do not. Protesters are free to make their case on public land, he said.

Simons said someone legally going from farm to farm, such as a delivery driver, could actually be a greater risk if they don’t follow farm protocols.

Senator Mobina Jaffer, an egg farmer who recently lost an entire farm to avian flu, said farmers are told by their marketing boards that they must allow organizations such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on their property.

It’s confusing to decide who is there lawfully and who isn’t, she said.

As much as she likes the bill as a farmer, she wondered if existing trespass laws already cover the situation.

Barlow said fines under the Criminal Code are not large enough to deter people, and often no one is charged at all.

Although the bill doesn’t specifically say “protesters”, Simons said the goal seems to be stopping them and cloaking that in the legitimate concerns of animal health.

“If I were you, I would be positioning my bill not as an attack on protesters but as an effort to prevent the spread of disease,” she said.

Barlow said the Commons agriculture committee discussed broadening the bill but felt the focus should be on those not following or aware of rules with regard to animal health.

He said C-275 is not an “ag gag” law, nor does it ban whistleblowers who he said are morally and legally obligated to report any activity that puts animals at risk.

Matthew Atkinson, president of Manitoba Beef Producers and co-chair of the Canadian Cattle Association animal health and care committee, said the organizations support the bill’s intent.

“There is a critical distinction between visits offered to those willing to follow prescribed biosecurity measures and sanitation practices and trespassers who could intentionally or unintentionally endanger animal health, welfare and food safety,” he told the committee.

Asked about expanding the bill’s scope to include everyone, Lauren Martin, senior director of government relations and policy at the Canadian Meat Council, said the existing wording is fine.

“We believe that it is broad enough to capture the intended audience of unlawful trespassers, yet specific enough to really address many of the industry’s initiatives that already protect biosecurity on farms,” she said.

Simons asked if it’s possible to separate the real problem of biohazard and the “annoyance” of protesters, although she acknowledged that might not be the correct characterization.

Martin said the issue is not how often trespassing occurs, but the possibility that it will.

She said including everyone could make it too broad and difficult to enforce.

Atkinson added there could be unintended consequences of including everyone.

“The fuel guy and the fertilizer guy and the feed guy might not want to set foot on my farm anymore for potential there. We have agreements in place but if something like this was worded that way, that would be my only concern,” he said.

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