CSIS tipped to bioterrorism fears:
But little anyone can do to stop activists from bringing disease into country: inspection agency

April 6, 2001 The Gazette (Montreal) by Stephen Thorne

RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are assessing the threat that bioterrorists could bring foot-and-mouth disease into Canada, food inspection officials said yesterday.

But there is little anyone could do to stop activists or anyone else from bringing the disease into the country, said Andre Gravel, executive vice-president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

"The agency is in contact with people from CSIS in terms of determining the potential for bioterrorism," Gravel told the Commons agriculture committee amid concerns over comments by an animal-rights group.

"It is a real possibility and things have to be done to prevent that from happening," Gravel said. "The problem is, it's very easy to do it if you want to do it."

The question arose after Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said recently that the spread of foot-and-mouth to North America wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Newkirk said an outbreak in Britain has prompted measures for which her organization has pushed for decades, including bans on livestock markets, factory farming and prolonged and frequent transport of animals.

MPs on the agriculture committee termed the comments treasonous.

"I almost fell off my chair when I read it," said Gravel, who described extensive measures his agency is taking to ensure outbreaks in Britain and Argentina don't spread to Canada.

The measures include advertising, brochures and inflight video campaigns. Border control measures have been stepped up, including opening of mail and courier packs. And visitors to the April 20-22 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City will be subject to special inspections.

"We will have a detector dog there," said Susanne Frost, acting director of the agency's enforcement and inspection services.

"The international protocol does allow us to search the baggage of international personnel, with cause."

Canadian Alliance MP Howard Hilstrom complained the agency had not issued a contingency plan 45 days after the British outbreak was identified.

Gravel responded that it has been tied up in translation.

Several MPs on the committee also said they knew of travelers returning from Britain who were not subjected to thorough checks or foot baths. And they expressed concerns about low inspection staff levels.

"We're lucky that this outbreak has not occurred in Canada because I think we would have been woefully unprepared to contain and eliminate the disease," Hilstrom said after the hearing.

CSIS spokesman Dan Lambert said he was not aware of any consultations on foot-and-mouth but the security service has procedures to check the threat of terrorism of any kind.

"If we get any information to indicate that anybody is involved in any type of terrorist activity, we investigate it and we provide that information to government and law enforcement as soon as possible," said Lambert.

An RCMP official referred the matter back to the food inspection agency.

Hilstrom said intelligence-gathering should have been stepped up by now.

Andrew Butler, PETA's campaign co-ordinator, said yesterday the British outbreak has turned the spotlight on farm practices, and that's a good thing.

"At long last, people are waking up to the fact that animal agriculture is appallingly cruel and highly dangerous and, of course, totally unsustainable," Butler said.

"That's really the wake-up call that Canada and the United States desperately need, as well."

Gravel said he was shocked.

"How could somebody say something like that? This is like wishing your country the worst possible nightmare."

Butler said most activities of his Virginia-based group don't amount to much more than people parading around in "fluffy animal costumes or dumping manure at an agricultural show and saying meat stinks."

He said the organization engages in civil disobedience and would never break the law or engage in terrorism.

There has been speculation, largely discounted, that the British outbreak was the result of bioterrorism. Gravel said it more likely came from pig feed derived from discarded Chinese food.

British agriculture and tourism industries have been devastated by foot-and-mouth, which affects cloven-hoofed animals like cows, pigs and sheep.

Britain has killed hundreds of thousands of animals in an attempt to contain the virus.

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