People are using words like "major epidemic," "highly pathogenic" and "devastating" to describe the outbreak of avian influenza that's sweeping through poultry farms throughout Minnesota and four other states. The Minnesota Board of Animal Health has posted county-by-county roundups of the number of animals affected as farmers, agricultural and public health workers struggle to contain the damage from the H5N2 virus.

But you won't find the names and locations of the farms themselves. That information is sealed from the public under a 2005 state law that exempts "animal premises data" from the open records law. Citing concerns about privacy and the threat of animal rights advocates, livestock farmers consistently try to keep identifying information about their operations out of public view.

The law does allow the Board of Animal Health to release the farm data to the public "if the board determines that the access will aid in the law enforcement process or the protection of public or animal health or safety." The board has shared the information with other agencies and adjoining property owners, but "an argument has not been made that we need to disclose it to the public," said Beth Thompson, the board's assistant director.

"It's a fairly strict statute and we adhere to it," she said.

Thompson pointed out that "we haven't seen any humans coming down with this virus... We've also not seen it spreading barn to barn." She said people with poultry flocks within a 20-kilometer radius of infected farms have been contacted, "all of that without disclosing where the site is."

At a time when agencies are mobilizing and hundreds of thousands of birds are being slaughtered, it's hard to see how the public is served by this secrecy. If this isn't a situation where the board should disclose what farms are affected, I don't know what is.

Above: A turkey farm in the "control zone" in Melrose, Minn./Staff photo by David Joles   

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