Citing the threat of bioterrorism and the need to protect sensitive farm business information, the Utah legislature passed a bill March 16 that seals state records of livestock populations and efforts to trace or control livestock disease from the public.
Lawmakers from Iowa, Colorado and Maryland are contemplating similar measures.
When Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed House Bill 226 into law, Utah joined Idaho as the only other state to exempt cattle records from public disclosure. The bill mustered little opposition in the Utah legislature as House delegates unanimously voted 68-0 on the measure, which was followed by a 19-4 state Senate vote.
If the other bills pass, some of the most lucrative livestock states will be able to close livestock records at their discretion — a move supported by the powerful farm lobby and politicians who have close ties to the livestock industry. The current movement to seal these records comes at a rather ambiguous time — more than three years after the 2001 anthrax attacks and about 16 months after the last mad cow scare.
The bill comes as Utah prepares to join a national livestock identification program aimed at tracing diseased animals back to their farm of origin within 48 hours. Officials at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food said the state is in the process of digitizing information gathered by brand inspectors who record the sales and movement of most livestock so animal health specialists are better informed to prevent the spread of disease. The state plans to require farmers to register all their animals at birth, but officials said this system won’t be fully operational for five years.
Coincidentally, the bill passed during the same week as journalists, librarians and educators enacted a multimedia initiative to inform the public about their right of access to government information. Although the Sunshine Week was gauged a success, the message didn’t permeate through the mountainous landscape of Salt Lake City and into the halls of the Utah State Capital.
Republican Rep. Craig Buttars said he introduced the bill to prevent terrorist organizations from locating feeding and livestock operations that could be vandalize or contaminated.
“It’s important that we not make that available to the general public until it is needed for public health reasons,” said Buttars, who runs a 220-head Holstein dairy in Lewiston, Utah.
He also said that livestock producers are more likely to provide the government with information they knew wasn’t going to be made public.
Democratic Sen. Ed Mayne said he voted against the bill because many of his constituents were concerned that cattle ranchers could hide genetic background and disease contamination of the animals they put in the market. He also said he received a letter from a man whose wife died from a disease carried in cattle.
Todd Bingham, vice president for public policy at the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, said his organization was concerned that if “radical thinking individuals” acquired livestock information, they could damage farm and ranch operations. The UFBF is affiliated with the American Farm Bureau Federation, the world’s largest general farm organization that has more than 5.6 million members in 50 states and Puerto Rico.
“We believe it’s important to protect the livestock operator and their information,” he said. “The department of agriculture, both at the federal and state level, are doing everything they need to be doing for testing of animals, to ensure the health and protection of public safety.
“What good does it do the public to know which farm that (diseased) animal came from?” he added. “We’ve entrusted that to a governmental agency. The public doesn’t need to know.”
He said that every supposed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, has been traced back to its origin. A variant form of a similar illness, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has been linked to humans who eat contaminated meat from BSE infected cows. The disease captured national attention in December 2003 following the nation’s first case of mad cow disease that surfaced in Washington state. It took four months to locate and identify all the animals associated with the infected cow, which was traced back to Canada, but not before many countries halted U.S. beef imports. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease gained worldwide attention in 1996 following an outbreak in Great Britain. More than 150 people have died from the disease, with most of the deaths occurring in Great Britain.
Bingham said the department of agriculture will disclose the region of infection but not the specific location or any owner or producer information.
“The information is out there for the people who need to have it, and there’s a reason for that,” he added.
The legislation is the 48th exception passed under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act since it was enacted in 1991. Other protected records include trade secrets, public health records, records of biological records and information regarding food security, risk and vulnerability assessments.
Officials at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food said most records maintained by the agency remain open, but some have limitations because of the “sensitivity” of information in them.
“The specifics of how many cattle and where the cattle are located are deemed fairly sensitive considering the threat to agriculture by bioterrorism,” said Larry Lewis, public information officer for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
He said state and federal veterinarians have access to their database, which is shared with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the state veterinarian and commissioner ultimately control the dissemination of that information.
Lewis said ranchers view the access to their records as an invasion of privacy.
“You wouldn’t want how much you have in the bank to be a public record,” he said. “The number of livestock is pretty much the same thing to a rancher.”
If there’s a problem with tainted meat, he said, the Utah Department of Agriculture would issue a prompt press release and inform the public immediately, just as it did after the 2003 mad cow outbreak.
Members of the Utah Press Association raised concerns to Utah legislators that the public has a right to know about the possible outbreak of diseases such as mad cow, if the diseases have been contained and where they surfaced.
“How safe are we in the dark?” asked Joel Campbell, legislative monitor for the Utah Press Association and a journalism professor at Brigham Young University.
As past president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and acting co-chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ National Freedom of Information Committee, Campbell has dealt with many privacy and right-to-know issues on a national level. He said many bills have passed dealing with homeland security issues, such as the Critical Infrastructure Information provision under the Federal Freedom of Information Act, which prevents certain information from public disclosure.
“We have an overreaction in state legislatures and federal government to this whole notion of terrorist threats,” he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is fighting to repeal this law with the inception of the Restore FOIA Act. A bill aimed at preserving the public’s right to know while still protecting sensitive infrastructure information. Leahy also is working with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to enact a bill called the OPEN Government Act of 2005, intended to speed up processing of FOIA requests by federal agencies.
Several other states are considering similar legislation that would close access to livestock records and investigations of animal disease. Colorado lawmakers are wrestling with a bill that would allow the agriculture commissioner to keep animal surveillance and investigation records sealed at his discretion until the matter is dismissed or if an area is quarantined. Colorado rancher and state Sen. Jim Isgar, who introduced the bill, told The Associated Press on Feb. 11 that premature disclosure of an investigation could devastate Colorado’s $2.7 billion cattle industry. The Democrat said ranchers who transfer their cattle to a feed lot could lose their profit for the entire year if the market plummets due to a false report of mad cow disease.
* Members of Iowa’s Senate Agriculture Committee are studying a bill that permits the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to keep a record confidential if it relates to the control of animal disease outbreaks or if the record is part of a federal or state animal health program that provides identification and tracking of animals.
* In February, Wyoming legislators signed a bill that conceals information gathered about certain diseases identified by the state veterinarian and limits access to that information to the person who reports the disease and the state veterinarian, who has the discretion to disseminate that information.
* In Maryland, House delegates unanimously passed a bill Feb. 11 that protects the identity of animal owners under specified circumstances but authorizes the disclosure of the identity of the animal owner if the agriculture secretary determines it necessary in order to protect public health or prevent the spread of disease.
Although the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association testified against the bill during House hearings, they have worked with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which proposed the bill, to narrow its impact. The agriculture department essentially wanted to protect the names and addresses of poultry keepers from disclosure, but the MDDC Press Association maintained that the bill went too far in closing off access, said MCCD legal coordinator Jim Donahue.
“The final result with this bill is not everything we would have liked,” Donahue said in an e-mail, “but it is an improvement, and it forecloses the possibility that the measure could have been interpreted to close access to other related information, including any outbreak of disease.”
The amended bill, which was introduced March 25, was passed by the Maryland Senate in May.
Chris Casacchia is a reporter for the Phoenix Business Journal. He also is a graduate student in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Before moving to Arizona, he was a staff writer for a newspaper chain in the Chicago metro area.
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