Agriculture bills would prevent disclosure of some farm records

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - At a time when farming is making spectacular economic strides in Alaska, the industry is pushing a pair of bills in the Legislature that would reduce the information that can be disclosed to the public about animal and crop diseases and imports.

Farmers say they need the bills to prevent unscrupulous competitors from using public records to unfairly learn about their business practices, or to keep animal rights activists from harassing them.

But a spokeswoman for one of those animals rights organizations, PETA, said the bills were part of an “ag-gag” trend sweeping state legislatures around the country to reduce transparency in the industry.

And two legislators said they were concerned that the bills would hurt consumers. One of them, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, noted that the bills allow for public disclosure if a disease threatens the public or another farm — but the exception to secrecy only gives state officials the option to publicly report information, and does not require it. The bill’s ban on disclosure has no such option — it is mandatory.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, the chair of the Senate Resources Committee and an Anchorage Republican, said at a hearing last week that she would ask bill drafters why they made disclosure optional. The reply, from the Alaska Division of Environmental Health on Monday, said the word “may” was intentionally used “to avoid the possibility of being forced to over-disclose under ‘shall’ language.”

The division, a branch of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said it would disclose “necessary information” to the public even if the law passed.

The two bills under discussion now, House Bill 315 and Senate Bill 164, are identical and were submitted to the Legislature in January by Gov. Bill Walker. The House version has passed its first committee, the House Judiciary Committee, and is in the House Resources Committee. The Senate version has passed its first committee and would go to the Senate floor for a vote after Giessel’s committee has finished with it.

The two state agencies named by the bill, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Natural Resources, both have officials who support it.

Bob Gerlach, the state veterinarian in the DEC, said in a recent interview that the bills have been called “HIPAA for horses,” a play on the 1996 federal law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that forbids healthcare providers from disclosing some patient records.

“I realize that for some people, it’s going to sound like farmers are trying to hide something, but we see it more as asserting privacy rights,” Gerlach said. “We’re protecting the farmers’ business management.”

Just last week, Gerlach addressed a farm conference in Delta about the risks of diseases from the Lower 48 spreading to livestock in Alaska.

“We’re seeing some things that we’ve never seen in the past and not just in isolated areas. But they’re all over, and reaching up here, in the state,” he said, according to the publication Veterinary Practice News.

In an interview with KTUU, Gerlach said privacy protections would encourage Alaska farmers to ask DEC to test their herds or to report possible diseases that could spread to other livestock, wildlife or people. If he learned of a dangerous communicable disease such as tuberculosis or mad-cow disease, he said he’d be duty-bound to report it, though without necessarily naming or locating the farmer or infected herd.

Arthur Keyes, the head of DNR’s Division of Agriculture, said he’s seen unscrupulous farmers use the public records process to get information on competitors — especially those who import livestock from Canada or the Lower 48.

“If you import animals, you don’t just go into the Yellow Pages and say I want to import some animals — it’s your business information, it’s not public health,” Keyes said. An Alaska stockman may have spent years establishing a relationship with an exporter that another rancher could quickly hijack — and not just the name of the exporter, but when the exports occur.

The same can be true for crops, according to Mark Rempel, an organic vegetable farmer in the Palmer area who primarily grows carrots, and who has spent more than 40 years in Alaska agriculture.

“I work really hard to come up with ideas and particular varieties that work well for me,” Rempel said. “I’ve spent years figuring that stuff out. For someone to be able to go into public records and get that information for free is not at all fair.”

Has that happened? Not through a public records request, Rempel said, but he’s mentioned to other farmers what he’s discovered, “and pretty soon I’m competing with myself.”

Jan Flora, a cattle rancher from Homer who sent a note in support of the bill, said a public records request would be “an invasion of privacy of our proprietary business practices.”

But Flora said she didn’t like the idea that the bill used the optional word “may” instead of the mandatory “shall” when it came to publicly reporting contagious diseases.

Nor did Sen. Bill Wielechowski when the Senate version of the bill came up for its first hearing at the Senate Resources Committee in February.

Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said the secrecy provisions of the bill “makes me a bit uncomfortable.”

“I want people to understand what we’re doing,” he said in an interview.

Several officials said the bill was necessary to prevent animal rights organizations from using state records to find places to film farming practices or harass ranchers.

But Priscilla Feral, the head of Friends of Animals in Connecticut and a knowledgeable critic of Alaska over her complaints against the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, said, “Nobody is doing anything like that.”

But Feral said it was “absurd” that state officials wouldn’t reveal everything they knew about a disease.

“I would think the farm bureau is acting very guilty as though they have something to hide, which seems to me to be the opposite of how they should approach food safety and moral treatment of animals,” Feral said.

Chris Holbein, public policy director for farm animal protection of the Humane Society of the United States, voiced opposition to the bill.

“We’re against measures like this — responsible farmers and food producers have nothing to hide. The purpose of this kind of bill is to only shield bad actors.”

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