Concerns about animals subject to intense confinement, crowding and other standard industrial animal farming practices have led people to break the law and trespass onto farms to call public attention to the harshness of some of these practices and instances of animal abuse.

In response, legislators have introduced Bill C-275, An Act to Amend the Health of Animals Act, an anti-trespass law presented as legislation needed to protect animals from infectious diseases introduced by protesters who trespass on farms. The bill will be debated in the House of Commons this week.

One of the events leading up to Bill C-275 occurred in 2019 when a turkey farm in southern Alberta was invaded by people protesting the current large-scale use and abuse of animals raised for food. It was a very upsetting experience for the farm owner. Several of the protesters were arrested, charged and found guilty of break and entry and mischief.

In an interview after the incident, the farm owner indicated that it was the unannounced trespass and the allegations of mistreatment of animals that were most upsetting — not concerns about infectious diseases. The farmer, who operates a turkey farm that houses and provides outdoor access for 30,000 turkeys, reported that if people wanted to come and "sit all day and look at the turkeys, they can."

Many people in the farming community and animal agriculture business were also upset by the incident. They wanted tougher sentences and more negative consequences for protesters to act as deterrents.

Politicians like MP John Barlow decided to appeal to threats of infectious diseases. Infectious diseases are serious concerns for the animal agriculture industry. There are some federal regulations to protect animals in Canada, such as those restricting the importation of animals and animal products from abroad. However, most on-farm biosecurity measures are voluntary and not legally mandated.

In justifying the need for Bill C-275, several politicians repeatedly stated that trespassing protesters caused infectious disease outbreaks — including diarrheal disease at a Quebec pig-breeding operation.

These are serious allegations that prompt a response. But they are also false and not supported by evidence. A subsequent investigation of the pig farm in Quebec documented evidence of inadequate ventilation, accumulation of manure and animals in need of medical attention, but no evidence protesters had introduced a diarrheal disease.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 and avian influenza among minks on fur farms raised public health concerns and prompted the slaughter of millions of minks in Europe for public health reasons. But these infections were introduced by workers, by food or by birds and free-ranging animals — no one trespassed on those farms to cause those outbreaks. In Canada, trespassing is illegal, but biosecurity measures to prevent COVID-19 and influenza outbreaks on fur farms, such as wearing face masks or respirators when working, are voluntary and at the discretion of individual businesses.

An open letter from 20 infectious disease specialists called attention to the fact that Bill C-275 misrepresents facts and seeks to “weaponize genuine concerns about infectious diseases and animal and human health in order to increase protection of private businesses from trespass and bad publicity.” Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reports document many infectious disease outbreaks on farms, but none that are caused by protesters or people who trespass.

In testimony provided to the committee studying Bill C-275, CFIA’s chief veterinary officer raised concerns that the bill “may not be a valid exercise of federal agricultural power.”

Animal and human health are complex, interdependent and serious issues that demand fair, evidence-based legislation — not #BillC275, write Michael Hawkes and Jan Hajek @ahoysvet #AnimalWelfare #cdnpoli

We encourage advocacy and activism for better lives for humans and animals. We encourage third-party inspections and video surveillance of commercial farms and slaughterhouses. We do not condone illegal activities or trespass — particularly if those illegal activities involve intimidation or abuse.

We agree that trespass should remain illegal and that business owners, turkey farmers and mink breeders should be protected from illegal activities. However, we think those goals should be achieved through means that don’t involve misrepresenting facts about health and infectious diseases. Such political machinations could serve to undermine the seriousness of infectious disease concerns and directly support a populist narrative that public health “science” can be co-opted for political gain.

Based on current realities, Bill C-275 is not going to improve animal health or significantly reduce the incidence of infectious disease outbreaks on farms. Bill C-275 has been promoted by making false claims and uses a baseless (or at least exceptionally weak) argument to advance an agenda, not fill a legislative gap. Animal and human health are complex, interdependent and serious issues that demand fair, evidence-based legislation — not Bill C-275.

Jan Hajek is an infectious diseases specialist at the Vancouver General Hospital and a clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia.

Michael Hawkes is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the BC Children’s Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia.

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Some years ago I read an article about domesticated pigs and the author(s) explained that when pigs have enough space to do so they will invariably concentrate their waste in only one portion of their pen. To keep them in fecal matter is so counterproductive I cannot understand why the factory owners allow it. Unhappy pigs certainly do not respond by eating more or gaining weight when the conditions of their existence are so disgusting. Pigs, have no trouble distinguishing between cooling soothing mud to protect their skins and noisome festering waste products then no doubt burn sensitive skin. One would think the factory owners and workers would do everything in their power to keep penned pigs clean because it would make their own working conditions so much more bearable.

I'm MOST disappointed that there was no allowance for Reader Comments on this article.
I have followed this issue for years--provincially & federally.
The authors are absolutely correct--and there's more.
Our animal cruelty legislation is around 100 years out of date. And completely biased towards animal farmers, transporters, "processors", and profit-makers, as well as comparable lobby groups like hunters & fishers.

And funding that flows from federal AND provincial coffers is almost entirely directed at animal farming. Grain and vegetable farmers are nearly entirely ignored.
All this despite the increasingly powerful evidence of the drastic harm to humans who consume animal products, and to our environment from that "business".

There is absolutely no sane or justifiable foundation for ag-gag laws. If the conditions uncovered were not so deeply and profoundly vicious and inexcusable, there would be no need for these distorted and totally biased laws.
Laws which block citizens' awareness of the horrible conditions, let alone our right to protest their cruelty.

How is this balanced? How is this just? How is this not legislated censorship of opinion?

If the backers of these laws want to prevent awareness among consumers, and then even a partial move away from consumption of animal "products", they are completely misguided.

We will find out. The people who take the videos, who air them--wherever--are astoundingly courageous, and humane. The videos have an effect--even if only on a few.
The information is available elsewhere, but the videos, the in-your-face confrontation of how cruel the "food chain" is, are highly effective. Otherwise, there wouldn't be such an organized & vocal opposition.

We'll find out, regardless. And as we do, there will be more and more opposition to animal cruelty, in all forms.

An excellent piece on the ludicrous machinations by all levels of government, who are obviously out of touch with the realities of animal agriculture.

The prospect of another major pandemic outbreak is terrifying; especially when horrifying viruses like Covid & Avian Flu could mix within a host animal, for example mink in a fur farm. This prospect needs to send a shudder to those purportedly keeping Canadians safe.

I’m one of those criminalized for exposing the Quebec pig factory, which masqueraded as a respected family farm. I’m glad I did.

I filmed pigs living in absolute filth, with hacking coughs. There were maggots everywhere.

I’ll continue exposing the use and abuse of innocent animals, and the danger zoonotic disease poses to us humans, as well as the horrendous working conditions in these disgusting places.

How can the public help? Stopping eating animals would really help.