Archive for May, 2012

There has been a modicum of public outcry over the working of bill 37, the Animal Health Act, over whether people will be restricted from speaking publicly about threats to the food supply. To hear some folks, this is merely the first step on the road to a totalitarian thought police state. This ‘hair-on-fire’ mentality is, in my humble opinion, akin to running into someone wearing a fur coat in a dark room and assuming that you’re being attacked by a bear – that is to say, both foolish and logically inconsistent.

To understand what the purpose of this bill is, we have to look at the incentive structure build up around reporting problems in the food system. Any kind of reportable illness is going to present a financial liability for the farmer, in terms of lost stock, lost time invested and lost reputation. Inherent also in reporting a risk is the potential that there was not an illness to begin with, and so the farmer loses reputational capital without any concrete benefit to the public.

It should also be noted that there are no restrictions placed on the media, or on everyday persons. The only people covered by the the reporting restriction are those that are directly involved in the testing process through the Ministry of Agriculture and contracted entities, like the lab performing the test. This is a perfectly reasonable protection to put in place, both for the farmer, for reasons explained below, and because announcing a potential danger to the food supply tends to create a degree of public panic, and should only be done when people are sure that something is indeed wrong.

Farmers are good people. They take pride in the animals they raise, and they don’t want their products to be sick, or get anyone else sick. The system that we have right now, where confidentiality is not guaranteed, is an active disincentive to be forthright about potential risks. The best way to ensure that farmers are going to be forthright and fully disclose every potential threat to the food supply is to protect them from unnecessary damage to their reputation for over-caution.

After the discovery of an Alberta cow with BSE, then-Premier Ralph Klein said that any self-respecting farmer would ‘shoot, shovel, and shut up’. This insult to the integrity of our farming folk notwithstanding, the incentive structure does promote hiding when your animals get sick. The least we can do to help out honest farmers is to protect them from unnecessary damages that result if the rumour of a sickness on their farm gets out.

I personally do not believe that government philosophy to information release should be one of total disclosure at every step of the process. This does not work in negotiations, in trials, and I do not think it can be called to work when the most likely outcome will be public panic and the ruination of one or more members of the agricultural industry.

The legislation will actually make it easier for farmers to report sickness in the food chain. It will make making the right decision easier, and make all of us safer as a result.

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