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Flu Privacy Bill Divides Farmers, Open Records Advocates

By Sarah Lesher
Capital News Service
Wednesday, March 2, 2005

ANNAPOLIS - Farmers just want privacy when it comes to outbreaks of avian flu, while journalists need to alert the public to potential problems, state officials and scribes told legislators Wednesday.

State Department of Agriculture representatives and journalists spoke on opposite sides of HB709 -- a bill that would require registration and licensing of poultry owners, production facilities, live poultry markets and dealers, but which would also make these records confidential.

The farm faction argued that unless they were promised confidentiality, poultry handlers would not register and the state would have little information and less control in case of a disease outbreak, such as avian influenza, which devastated the Delmarva poultry industry a year ago.

Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said the group would normally oppose registration, but supported this bill because of the large investment the Eastern Shore has in birds.

"We support the confidentiality provision. Otherwise it's hard to get compliance," Connelly said.

The bill does permit disclosure of information to protect the public health.

That could become an issue at some point with avian flu, which can mutate to a form that kills humans and can spread readily among humans, causing an epidemic.

Representatives from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association and The Washington Post said the bill restricts information unnecessarily.

"Our normal arguments in this area are for the right of the public to full access to public records. Any change is suspect and worrisome," said James J. Doyle Jr. of the press association.

There was a debate over whether the wording of the bill would really deny the press and public access to essential information.

"Well it 'says' that, but..." said Delegate Richard Sossi, R-Queen Anne's.

"This law fully gives up control over what they do and don't give you," Doyle said.

The way the Maryland Public Information Act works is that if something is closed, it's closed, said Carol D. Melamed, vice president, government affairs for The Washington Post.

People constantly provide government with required information without promises of confidentiality, she said, so surely it wasn't necessary here to offer confidentiality to get people to register.

"The public has a definite interest in knowing how the poultry business is doing and how the government is monitoring it," Melamed said.

Daniel Bautista, director of the Department of Agriculture's animal-health diagnostic laboratory in Salisbury, said that no one is trying to sell sick chickens, but that if word of disease gets out in the press, foreign countries immediately cut off all imports.

Delegate J. B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County, said he'd heard of people in camouflage sneaking up on poultry houses.

"All they need to do is get one diseased bird out and they can use it to infect other (poultry) houses," Jennings said. "My concern is that we need to shut down and not let anyone know where (the disease) is."

 

Copyright 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism


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