This article originally appeared in the March 24, 2021, edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.
As Canadians have learned through the COVID-19 pandemic, diseases that travel rapidly and with little traceability can have devastating and far-reaching implications. Governments and public-health officials have made clear the best way to prevent a virus from spreading is to limit contacts.
We have spent a year physical distancing, limiting contacts, not travelling, and wearing masks with the singular focus of reducing transmission of COVID-19. Similar tools are also applied to prevent, mitigate and control animal-health issues.
The threat of disease outbreaks and the spread of noxious weeds are key reasons the provincial government heeded our calls for strengthening trespassing legislation, and we strongly support updated legislation that further mandates and enforces biosecurity. Bills 62 and 63 protect animals and help farmers ensure that outbreaks of African Swine Fever (ASF), avian influenza and other respiratory diseases, foot and mouth disease or other devastating diseases do not occur in Manitoba.
Foreign animal disease represents one of the biggest threats to animals under the care of Manitoba farmers. These diseases spread from contact with someone who has travelled, most of the time unknowingly, to an infection zone, or had contact with infected animals or contaminated equipment, feed, or clothing.
How big of a threat are foreign animal diseases? Over the past 15 years, ASF has spread across Africa, central Asia and through several European countries. Estimates from China suggest more than 200 million pigs were lost just in the first year of the outbreak. Foot and mouth disease outbreaks in the United Kingdom have resulted in the loss of millions of animals. Avian influenza has devastated flocks in Canada. There are no cures for these diseases and no vaccines to protect livestock. Prevention and vigilance are our only tools.
Through our collective experience with COVID-19, we have learned that it is critical to have a plan when dealing with the threat of a disease. The agricultural sector is proud to work with numerous stakeholders, governments and medical professionals to ensure the health of our animals and the safety of Manitoba’s food supply. Our sector groups work with provincial authorities such as the chief veterinary officer, herd veterinarians, farmers and ranchers and other sector stakeholders focused on developing strategies to reduce risks to Manitoba animals.
Rigorous adherence to biosecurity protocols is a major factor in keeping disease threats out of our food supply. Livestock in our care brought into barns and onto farms are screened to be disease-free, and we consistently monitor feed and water sources. Farmers also restrict contact with the outside world by, where possible, carefully limiting access to only those who provide animal care.
Trespassers on our farms, on our ranches and in our barns threaten the delicate work of maintaining biosecurity. Individuals could knowingly or unknowingly harm animals by sharing diseases or other contaminants, and could force entire herds to be culled, a situation in which nobody wants to be placed. Further, this new legislation removes the requirement for farmers and their employees to confront trespassers, which further protects the safety of all parties by discouraging confrontation and placing action in the hands of law enforcement.
Industry-led biosecurity requirements that include showering when entering and exiting hog barns and wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment go further than the standards required by regulations.
National standards also apply to the movement of livestock, including operation under extreme weather conditions, measures to ensure safe temperatures in trailers and how to handle stops. Farmers and truck drivers have experienced protesters attempting to stop a truck and trying to provide unknown substances to animals being transported. Reckless actions such as these present further contamination and disease risks that could have far-reaching effects to animals across the province and country.
The agriculture sector welcomes the legislation the provincial government has brought forward, and we recognize their commitment to ensuring that our food supply continues to be safe for everybody. Farmers hold themselves to a high standard, and laws and regulations ensure that animals are raised to the highest quality and provided with the highest level of care.
This column represents the views of the Manitoba Pork Council (George Matheson), Manitoba Beef Producers (Tyler Fulton), Dairy Farmers of Manitoba (David Wiens), Manitoba Egg Farmers (Catherine Kroeker-Klassen), Manitoba Chicken Producers (Jake Wiebe), Manitoba Turkey Producers (Rachelle Brown) and Keystone Agricultural Producers (Bill Campbell).