Ontario to ban undercover investigations at food processing plants amid COVID-19 outbreaks

Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is going ahead with a controversial bill banning undercover investigations of health and safety violations at food processing plants in Ontario as the province struggles to contain at least three COVID-19 outbreaks at meat plants in the province.

Bill 156, Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2020, makes it illegal to enter farms and animal processing facilities using permission obtained under “false pretences.”

The Ford administration introduced the bill was after a series of undercover video exposes showing possible violations of human health regulations at slaughterhouses in Ontario[1]https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/sheik-halal-farms-slaughterhouse-undercover-investigation-exposes-incidents-of-apparent-animal-abuse-possible-non-compliance-of-human-health-regulations-and-possible-misrepresentation-of-halal-products-835591620.html raised questions about the province’s oversight of the food processing industry.

Premier Ford is trying to push the bill through parliament despite the province being home to at least three major outbreaks at food plants in Ontario.

Maple Lodge Farms waited nearly three weeks before publicly disclosing the first positive case at its Brampton facility, according to internal documents obtained by Global News[2]https://globalnews.ca/news/6913049/coronavirus-ontario-meat-packing-plant/, where a worker has died and two dozen others have been infected.

Legal experts have warned Minister of Agriculture Ernie Hardeman and Attorney General Doug Downey arguing that Bill 156 is unconstitutional[3]https://www.animaljustice.ca/media-releases/ontario-ag-gag-bill-is-unconstitutional-say-leading-legal-experts.

“Fundamentally, section 2(b) of the Charter is aimed at promoting and safeguarding the open
debate and discussion essential to a free and democratic society,” read the letter signed by scores of Canadian lawyers. “The right to freedom of expression includes expression that gives the public, including consumers, access to information that would enable them to make informed food purchasing choices.”

“As with many US ag-gag laws, section 4(6) of Bill 156 appears to target investigative journalists and protected speech, and has no connection to the stated goal of protecting property and biosecurity,” the letter added. “It would insulate private actors from being held publicly accountable. Section 5(2) would unreasonably curtail rights to protest on public property. In an open democratic society, streets and other public places are an important place for public discussion and political expression. Protecting rights to protest on public property is critically important to safeguard freedom of expression, and its corollary, the right to listen.”

Animal rights groups believe that undercover reporting is crucial for ensuring that food processing plants follow laws and regulations in the absence of effective on site investigations by the provincial authorities.

“Ontario animal protection laws rely heavily on the reporting of animal cruelty and neglect to protect the welfare of farm animals,” the group Last Chance for Animals, which has conducted a number of undercover investigations of meat plants in the province, said. “If this Bill passes, it would make it illegal for people to attend and observe the conditions of animals on farms, in transport trucks or in slaughterhouses, without obtaining advance consent from the farm or truck operator.”

A petition urging Ontario government to oppose Bill 156 started by the group has so far garnered over 16,000 signatures[4]https://www.change.org/p/hon-ernie-hardeman-stop-ontario-ag-gag-bill-156-a3974f0f-c9ca-4e82-a7d6-aeebe40ca0f0.

Alberta’s United Conservative Party government under Jason Kenney rammed through a similar law last December. A High River, Alberta slaughterhouse operated by Cargill Ltd has become the site of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak with nearly 1,000 out of the 2,000 workers infected.

Feature Image: Animal right activists protesting Bill 156 outside Premier Doug Ford’s house. Credit: Animal Justice.

References   [ + ]

1. https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/sheik-halal-farms-slaughterhouse-undercover-investigation-exposes-incidents-of-apparent-animal-abuse-possible-non-compliance-of-human-health-regulations-and-possible-misrepresentation-of-halal-products-835591620.html
2. https://globalnews.ca/news/6913049/coronavirus-ontario-meat-packing-plant/
3. https://www.animaljustice.ca/media-releases/ontario-ag-gag-bill-is-unconstitutional-say-leading-legal-experts
4. https://www.change.org/p/hon-ernie-hardeman-stop-ontario-ag-gag-bill-156-a3974f0f-c9ca-4e82-a7d6-aeebe40ca0f0