“The minister recognizes that he’s not an expert in the diagnosis of TB.”
– Mari A Koller-Jones
Rodney Checkowski was armed with a letter from Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz that he thought supported his case when he stood up to Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials in 2008.
The letter, signed by the minister and forwarded from local MP Inky Mark’s office, dated April 18, 2008, stated in part: “Under these arrangements, the CFIA veterinarian responsible for TB testing of this herd will use a modified test protocol to test Mr. Checkowski’s cattle that incorporates a recently developed blood test for bovine TB. This protocol will maximize the diagnostic ability to detect bovine TB in the herd if it is present.”
Frustrated by repeated false positives, and what he believed to be false negatives in his herd over the years since the early 1980s, Checkowski said that he began “hounding” his local MP for a different test as far back as 1997. Inky Mark’s office forwarded his letters to the federal ag minister’s office, and Ritz finally responded in 2008.
The letter also stated that all reactors would be removed from his herd.
“It didn’t say anything about 72 hours,” said Checkowski.
Checkowski said he believed the letter authorized him to “challenge” CFIA officials, and demand that a number of animals that he believed were reactors missed in earlier testing be removed.
He added if he hadn’t received the letter, he wouldn’t have felt that he had the right to ask for special treatment during the June 6, 2008 standoff for which he was convicted last April 16 and fined $1,500.
“The judge accused me of being paranoid and trying to tell the CFIA what to do. Well, it wasn’t my decision. It was the minister’s decision,” said Checkowski, in a recent interview from his home in Rossburn.
Another rancher Nick Synchyshyn was convicted the same day and fined $3,000.
In his comments, Judge John Combs told Synchyshyn that if he and other farmers don’t agree with how the TB-testing program is conducted, they should “band
together and lobby the government for changes.” He was fined $3,000.
In the Checkowski trial that afternoon, the letter from Ritz was brought up and discussed briefly during an exchange between the judge and CFIA senior vet Maria Koller-Jones, who appeared to suggest that the minister, as a “layperson,” was not qualified to tell the CFIA how it should conduct specific testing procedures.
“That is what really blew me away. Surely to God the minister could change it,” said Checkowski, noting it raises the question of whether the minister has any authority over the agency.
Koller-Jones in an interview last week confirmed that the minister does in fact have authority over the CFIA, but that Checkowski had misinterpreted its meaning.
Koller-Jones said that a “more accurate” neck-fold test using a double dose of tuberculin was to be tried in order to reassure Checkowski that his animals did not have TB as he suspected.
“The minister recognizes that he’s not an expert in the diagnosis of TB,” said Koller-Jones, who oversees the RMNP eradication program. In her 27 years of working on the TB problem, she has never witnessed a minister ordering the CFIA to alter established practices.
“When he gives the responsibility to the CFIA, he expects the agency’s veterinarians, scientists and inspectors to devise the best plans and procedures and to use them.”
The “modified test protocol” developed by CFIA scientists as presented to Checkowski in April of that year, she said, involved a more sensitive neck-fold test on animals that he was especially concerned about.
The standard caudal fold test in the tail was to be used with the rest of his herd.
“This was the protocol that was worked out, and our understanding was that he had agreed to it,” she said.
The second modification was that all the animals would undergo the Bovigam blood test, and the third, was that any reactors to any of the tests would be slaughtered and tissue samples cultured.
Some neck-fold tests turned up positive, the animals slaughtered and compensation paid to Checkowski. None of the animals turned up positive in final-stage testing.
In her view, the dispute stemmed from other “reactors” that Checkowski claimed to have observed after the 72-hour period, which he demanded that the CFIA remove before he would agree to any further testing.
Under questioning during the trial, she stated that animals with swelling in the injection site after the official 72-hour window were not considered reactors under established protocols. That’s why the CFIA would not remove the animals Checkowski claimed were reactors that they had missed.
Koller-Jones said skipping the tuberculin injection, whether in the tail or neck, is not an option, because the animal must first be “primed,” or exposed to tuberculin, for the screening blood test and the secondary Bovigam test to work.
Liberal Agriculture Critic Wayne Easter, who has had previous conversations with Checkowski, said that conflict between ranchers and the CFIA occurs because nobody at the agency “seems to want to listen” to the people in the eradication zone who must put up with “absolute and utter misery” and are being driven out of business.
“Yes, they have the authority. No question about that,” said Easter. “But instead of working with people, they come in with a big hammer and it’s ‘our way or the highway.’ If there’s other ways of doing it that still provides the proper testing, they should be looked at.”
Checkowski is facing a second trial in Brandon on June 17 on new charges of failing to comply under the Health of Animals Act over a second standoff with the CFIA that occurred on Jan. 4, 2010.
Bill Mansell, a rancher from Inglis, is also due to appear in a Dauphin court on June 8 under a similar charge related to TB testing. [email protected]