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Missouri bill would limit authority to inspect farms

by Brendan Crowley | February 7, 2020 at 6:05 a.m. | Updated February 10, 2020 at 6:32 p.m.

A bill that would limit who can inspect farms in Missouri came close to passing in 2019, and its sponsor is trying again this year.

State Rep. Kent Haden, R-Mexico, proposed a bill that would limit who can inspect grounds and facilities used for producing eggs, milk and dairy products, or raising livestock, poultry, dogs or other animals. Under Haden's bill, only federal and state agencies that regulate agriculture and the county sheriff could inspect those facilities.

Haden said the bill is meant to protect producers from animal rights activists who insist they have the authority to inspect a farm so they can get inside. It's also an issue of biosecurity, making sure only trained people have access to farms to limit the spread of disease, he said.

Opponents argued it would take authority from local health departments, which may need to inspect a farm if there's a manure spill or an outbreak of disease.

The bill only applies to animal production, so health departments could still inspect processing facilities, Haden said.

He used to work as a regulatory veterinarian for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, and he said there were instances when animal rights activists showed a badge and insisted they had a right to inspect a farm. It wasn't common, but it was serious for the farmers who let someone hostile to their operation onto their property.

Haden said his bill would address that problem by making clear exactly who has the authority to inspect farms in Missouri.

Along with protecting farmers from fake inspections, Haden said his bill would protect legitimate inspectors. When he was a regulatory veterinarian, he would go to farms to help local law enforcement with horse welfare cases, he said.

There was confusion within the department about whether they actually had the authority to inspect a farm for those cases. Haden's personal attorney said he could be prosecuted for harassment, so Haden asked the department if it would defend him in that case.

"The answer was, 'Well, I certainly hope so,'" Haden said. "Well, that isn't a very definitive answer."

His bill would make it clear those regulatory veterinarians have the authority to be there, he said.

The Missouri Association of Local Public Health Agencies opposed the bill in a hearing before the House Agriculture Policy Committee on Wednesday, arguing it would limit the authority of county health departments.

Most local health departments work alongside the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to enforce and follow up on sewage complaints from agricultural facilities, Miller County Health Center Administrator Michael Herbert said in an email. They also investigate communicable disease outbreaks, and they would need to have access to agricultural facilities if one is the source of an outbreak, he said.

Haden's bill would allow for the Missouri Department of Agriculture "or its representative" to inspect production facilities. It also would allow any other state or federal agency that regulates animal production - including the state health department - to inspect the facilities but would not allow their representatives, blocking out local health agencies, their association argued in written testimony.

"We would prefer the bill permit a representative of DHSS just as it does the Department of Agriculture," Herbert said. "In general, the Missouri Association of Local Public Health Agencies will oppose any bill that eliminates local public health authority."

In most cases, local health agencies don't have people who are trained in the measures animal producers take to keep diseases from spreading, Haden said. County sheriffs would be allowed to inspect because they are the ones who enforce animal welfare ordinances, not any state or federal agency, he said.

Producers have millions of dollars invested in their animals, and they are careful to protect them from diseases, Haden said, like the African swine flu that has killed more than 1 million pigs in China and other countries in Asia over the past two years, according to the United Nations.

To prevent a herd-destroying outbreak in the United States, producers have strict biosecurity requirements, Haden said. Some require that anyone coming into a confinement not have contact with other animals for several days prior, he said. They'll also provide clothes to wear inside and require visitors to shower before going in and coming out.

Many local health department staff have medical training, but few are veterinarians, he said. They could put a herd at risk just from picking up something on their boots from a mat at a convenience store. The state and federal agriculture departments have investigators trained in those biosecurity measures and who know what precautions to take, he said.

If an inspector brought a disease into a herd and it ended up killing animals, the producer would face a huge loss. It's not clear who would be liable for that, Haden said, but there would be a lot of money spent on lawyers before the courts came to an answer.

Haden first introduced the bill last year, when the Legislature passed a law banning counties and county health boards from passing agricultural regulations stricter than state or federal rules. Opponents argued that bill took local control from the 20 Missouri counties with their own regulations on concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs - large livestock operations that typically store large amounts of animal waste.

Local health agencies argued both bills curbed their authority, and they were often conflated, Haden said. Haden supported limiting county CAFO regulations, but his bill isn't about CAFOs, he added.

The Cedar County Commission and Cooper County Health Board are suing to defend their regulations, arguing the law was unconstitutional and their regulations should be grandfathered in if it isn't. If the regulations are allowed to stand, Haden said those counties could still enforce their rules if his bill became law.

County health departments wouldn't be able to inspect farms themselves, but they could have state or federal inspectors look into complaints and then enforce their rules, he said. County health departments don't have people qualified to do those inspections anyway, he said.

The bill also includes a provision that no inspector can seek to impose the laws of another state on a Missouri animal producer without their permission. That portion is to limit when inspectors from state's like California with strict food laws can inspect Missouri farms.

In 2018, California voters agreed to require all eggs sold in the state come from cage-free hens. That created a huge market for cage-free eggs, which can be sold for higher prices.

Before Missouri farmers can take advantage of that market, California inspectors have to certify their hens are cage-free. Haden's bill would allow those inspections but only with the owner's permission.

Haden's bill passed the Missouri House of Representatives and a Senate committee last year. It was added as an amendment to an omnibus agriculture bill in the Senate, but he said he asked for it to be removed when a filibuster over his bill threatened to stop the entire agriculture bill from passing.

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