For years, the little-known Animal Health Centre in the Fraser Valley has played a national role in food safety, overseeing the health of livestock, pets, wildlife and marine creatures. This week, the lab's scientists were dragged into the long-running and highly political battle over farmed fish in B.C.
The facility, in the city of Abbotsford, is in the spotlight only during the rare outbreaks of avian influenza in farmed poultry, or the detection of bovine spongiform encephalopathy – mad-cow disease – in cattle.
But a dispute between two scientists over the presence of an inflammatory disease in open-net salmon farms has triggered a probe of potential conflict of interest that has put the entire decades-old operation under a cloud.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham says a review by the head of the B.C. civil service, Don Wright, is necessary to ensure the public can maintain confidence in the province's animal health monitoring program.
"The scientific community depends on integrity of results," she told reporters. "So when shadows of doubt are cast over that integrity, it's very important for us to clear it up as soon as possible."
At the heart of the clash between the two scientists is the presence of a viral disease they each detected in farmed salmon in B.C. – and whether the Animal Health Centre's work with the aquaculture industry has influenced how that disease was reported by the lab.
The lab acts as a watchdog for the B.C. agrifood industry, but it also provides fee-for-service testing for industry and other clients, billing itself as Western Canada's leading full-service veterinary laboratory. Its clients range from poultry farms to Parks Canada, and its pathologists are called on to monitor marine life in polluted waters in the oil sands and the Great Lakes.
The centre has a $7-million budget provided by government, according to the provincial Agriculture Ministry. In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, clients, including agriculture producers, other governments, individual citizens and veterinary clinics, paid about $1.4-million in fees. Of that total, the three large salmon aquaculture companies operating in B.C. paid $176,000 in fees.
"They work for the ministry and they work with DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and it looks like they also work for industry," Ms. Popham said. "That's the model they have been following."
The review by Mr. Wright was announced Wednesday, after Ms. Popham began looking into concerns raised by Kristi Miller, the head of molecular genetics for DFO's Pacific Biological Station, about a potential conflict of interest involving the Animal Health Centre's chief fish pathologist, Gary Marty.
Not a new dispute
The two scientists have a history of disagreement. A string of e-mails in 2016 offers a look into the origins of their dispute. Dr. Miller earned national media attention when she announced that her department discovered an outbreak of disease in farmed fish that led to inflammation of the heart and skeletal muscle, which can cause mortality in the fish.
That prompted Dr. Marty to challenge Dr. Miller in the e-mail exchange – obtained by The Globe and Mail and then confirmed by Dr. Marty. In his e-mail to Dr. Miller, he said he had discovered the symptoms of the disease in 2013. But the bigger issue was how that disease was characterized. Dr. Miller classified the disease as HSMI (heart and skeletal muscle inflammation) while Mr. Marty rejected that definition.
"I do not want the [DFO work] to be seen as a project that takes credit for discoveries that were previously reported by other scientists," Dr. Marty wrote to Dr. Miller. By avoiding the definition of HSMI in his work, however, the aquaculture industry in B.C. was able to say its fish were not infected with HSMI.
Dr. Miller did not return phone calls and e-mails from The Globe. Dr. Marty, in response to written questions, told The Globe: "The heart disease is not new to B.C., just the name," he stated. "Changing the name of a disease is not a threat to wild salmon."
He said he understands why some might conclude that working with industry and serving as a public watchdog might be perceived as a conflict of interest, but he does not believe that it is.
"Worldwide, government provision of diagnostic services is a fundamental component of disease control in animals. We need to diagnose serious disease outbreaks as soon as possible, but we can do that only if all animal owners are encouraged to submit their sick animals to us for testing," he told The Globe.
"Because many animal diseases can also infect humans, early diagnosis is also a fundamental component of controlling and preventing disease in people."
Politics enters into it
The fact that Dr. Miller's concerns have prompted a review by the provincial government, in itself, has taken on a strong political hue.
The opposition Liberals have hammered Ms. Popham over her handling of the affair, dubbing her the "minister of intimidation" for her interventions on fish farm issues, including an earlier letter she sent to Marine Harvest, a company in the centre of a long-running protest with environmentalists and many Indigenous communities, expressing her displeasure about their decision to restock their fish farms in the midst of that dispute.
In Question Period, Liberal environment critic Peter Milobar called on Ms. Popham to be removed from decision-making around fish farms, saying she has demonstrated a bias against the industry.
"To the minister of intimidation, her bias is quite obvious, and she hasn't attempted to hide it: Will she do the responsible thing and recuse herself from the aquaculture file, given her obvious conflict of interest?"
The debate about fish farms in B.C., and whether they pose a threat to wild salmon, has been brewing for decades. But the change in government this summer has given opponents of the fish farms new hope that this will be the year they force the closure of open-net farms.
Last spring, during the provincial election campaign, the NDP candidate for North Island, Claire Trevena, stood up in the Big House in the First Nations community of Alert Bay and declared that an NDP government would get rid of the disputed farms in open waters.
"We will remove fish farms, we are committed to that," she stated, "and make sure that these territories, and the North Island, are clear of fish farms."
Last week, Ms. Trevena said in an interview that she was only outlining the position of the NDP while in opposition: "What I said in the Big House is reiterating a long-standing policy, which is, we are going to work with everyone to find a solution."
The Animal Health Centre is one of at least 10 such labs across Canada, says Carl Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Prairie Diagnostic Services Inc. in Saskatoon.
Mr. Johnson said Prairie Diagnostic operates in a similar fashion to the B.C. lab – it is a non-profit independent corporation, co-owned by the Province of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan. But much of its revenue comes from fees for service, largely from the veterinary profession in Saskatchewan and adjacent provinces as well as agricultural interests.
"I can understand why some folks may look at this and have some concerns about what is the private versus public interests and who gets priority and things like this, but, to be honest, I don't see this having an impact on what we do," he said in an interview. "We are treating everyone equally."
In general, Mr. Johnson said the labs contribute to food safety by identifying diseases of interest in food, whether issues are raised by the private sector, corporate farms or livestock groups. "We're going to be there to help diagnose what the risk is here in terms of the potential for it to create any food-related illness."
Paul Gumprich, who has a small beef farm in the Chilliwack area and teaches a livestock health course at the University of the Fraser Valley, said he was alarmed by the questions that have now been raised about the lab.
"It is an integral part of being able to run your farm, your livestock operation. If you need to know the organisms that are causing you problems on your farm, you need to determine what those organisms are and that lab there does that," he said. "Having that lab is essential for most farmers."
Last year, for example, he said he had to take two or three fecal samples to the centre to test. The centre has 12 veterinarians, 19 laboratory scientists, and seven support staff, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
"It is an accredited lab and frankly I have never come across any reason to doubt them," said Mr. Gumprich, who has run his livestock operation since 1994. "I have full confidence in that lab and when I take a sample there, I fully expect to get results I can trust."
A spokesman for the BC Salmon Farmers Association said his members – including Marine Harvest – are also confident in the lab's processes and results.
"If Mr. Wright would like to speak with us about our experience as part of his review, we would be happy to participate," the association's executive director, Jeremy Dunn, said in an e-mailed statement. "As this diagnostic laboratory services all agriculture producers in the province, it's important to thousands of farmers that they have confidence in the results."
However, Ernest Alfred, a hereditary chief of the 'Namgis First Nation who has been part of the occupation of one of the fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago since this past August, said it is the Liberals who are in conflict, because of their reliance on campaign contributions from the salmon-farming sector. In 2016 and 2017, the BC Salmon Farmers Association donated a total of $13,000 to the BC Liberal party. Marine Harvest and other individual fish farm companies have also contributed to the Liberals.
"There is a clear bias of the Liberals," Mr. Alfred said.
Mr. Alfred said he was pleased that Ms. Popham has initiated the review of the lab, and that Premier John Horgan has met with the 'Namgis First Nation to hear the concerns of the Indigenous community about the fish farms in their territories.
"The Liberals ignored our calls for an investigation, and finally we have people of leadership. The fact that the government is talking about this is exciting to us, we couldn't be more encouraged by the position of the NDP to stand up for the First Nations of this territory, and not for the foreign shareholders."
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