“If you are not prepared to do this, I suggest that you get out of the cattle business.”
– JUDGE JOHN COMBS
Two convictions under the Health of Animals Act in a Brandon courtroom April 16 have sent a clear message that refusing to comply with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in testing for bovine tuberculosis will result in stiff penalties.
After listening to evidence from a number of CFIA staff, arguments from the Crown, and testimony from ranchers Nick Synchyshyn and Rodney Checkowski, Judge John Combs slapped a $3,000 fine on the former, and a $1,500 fine on the latter.
In passing sentence on Synchyshyn, who has 50 head in the Rural Municipality of Clanwilliam but works every winter in Alberta, Combs said that regardless of whether raising cattle is a hobby or their livelihood, individual producers must co-operate with testing for contagious diseases like TB.
“If you are not prepared to do this, I suggest that you get out of the cattle business,” said Combs, adding that Synchyshyn’s refusal to test the herd on Dec 30, 2008, “flies in the face of an established regime” that has been underway with the goal of eradicating TB in Canada’s cow herd since the 1920s.
“If you or other producers don’t believe in it, get together and lobby the government for changes,” he added.
In his defence, Synchyshyn, who represented himself, argued that CFIA inspectors had not given him enough notice, and that even though his cattle were in a pen when they arrived to conduct testing, he had just returned home for Christmas, was sick with the flu and not ready to run cattle through the chutes because he hadn’t had time to buy Ivomec for deworming.
For their part, CFIA staff told court that they sent out letters to producers in the testing area in September, spoke with Synchyshyn on the phone on one occasion shortly thereafter, and set up the Dec. 30 testing date with Jared Krushelnisky, who was living in his house at the time and looking after the herd.
Synchyshyn argued the caretaker did not have the authority to set up a test date without his consent.
The Crown countered that he could have made arrangements for testing his herd in the weeks that followed, but had failed to do so.
Dr. Maria Koller-Jones, a senior staff vet for the CFIA based in Ottawa and in charge of overseeing the national bovine TB eradication program, testified that the area surrounding Riding Mountain National Park is one of the few “high-risk” areas in Canada where the disease continues to be a problem.
Surveillance testing began in 1923, and at that time, every cattle herd in the country had to be tested regularly for the zoonotic disease which can infect all mammals. Pasteurization of raw milk, she added, was introduced to eliminate the danger of TB infection in humans.
Currently, most testing is done at the slaughter plant via visual inspection of internal organs.
“In that area, we are doing what we did 50 years ago, going to farms and testing herds,” she said.
“We are very close to the end of the eradication program, and now are dealing with the last few pockets of infection. Our goal is to make it as small as possible,” she said.
Of the 600 to 650 beef producers with a combined herd of 55,000 head in the Riding Mountain TB Eradication Area (RMEA), to her knowledge only three had ever refused to test their herds, she said.
Checkowski told court that 27 years of testing for TB has led to 24 of his animals being killed on his farm in the Rural Municipality of Rossburn. Endless testing and repeated quarantines have driven his 65-head operation to ruin, he said.
He told court that his frustration with the process had caused him to overreact, and at one point, he apologized to CFIA staff during the trial for being “rude.”
“I’m not against testing. I’m all for testing,” he said.
On June 6, 2008, CFIA staff in two vehicles were parked at the end of his lane while local RCMP negotiated with Checkowski to arrange testing under a “final notice” from the CFIA.
Checkowski, who also represented himself, testified that prior to the incident, earlier testing had turned up five “reactors” after the 72-hour inspection period had passed. Suspicious that the testing was actually causing TB in his herd, he demanded that CFIA officials remove the sick animals before he would allow any more testing.
“I asked for the reactors to be removed. That was my main sticking point,” said Checkowski, in describing the events of that day.
In his trial, Checkowski submitted evidence from a veterinary medical textbook which he interpreted as meaning that tuberculin injections could cause the disease, which was why he had demanded that CFIA vets skip the caudal-fold screening test and use the more advanced blood test instead.
Koller-Jones told court that because the tuberculin injection contains only killed and blended mycobacterium bovis, not the actual live TB bug, infection from the test injection is “scientifically, biologically impossible.”
In the Checkowski case, Combs accepted that the rancher had concerns about the efficacy of the procedure, but that he as a layperson had no right to dictate the terms of testing.
He found him guilty of refusing to present his animals for testing and failing to provide assistance, but fined him a reduced amount because his actions may have simply been misguided. [email protected]