Flu Privacy Bill Divides Farmers, Open
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
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,"
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."