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A bill that would limit who can conduct inspections of agricultural facilities is being considered by lawmakers in the Missouri House Agriculture Policy Committee.

State Rep. Kent Haden, R-Mexico, said HB 574 would protect agricultural facilities against "fishing expeditions'' from inspectors. He also noted the need for agricultural facilities to have additional protections against the risks of biosecurity breaches, such as the introduction of the deadly African swine fever into confined animal herds by unauthorized or inexperienced inspectors.

"These viruses are out there that could be brought in by someone not knowing it," Haden said.

The bill is similar to one filed last year that was scheduled for debate on the House floor the day the chambers adjourned because of COVID-19. This bill differs slightly in that it sets a class B misdemeanor for violations to the stated provisions.

The current version of the bill also includes new language that would limit who can provide evidence or testimony in court regarding conditions or activities on farm grounds or facilities. State Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, noted concern about this additional language.

"I feel like we're going to be stepping into another branch of government and limiting the ability of folks that are trying to do the right thing within the judicial branch," McCreery said.

The bill would grant exclusive authority to certain regulatory agencies to provide evidence or testimony in civil or criminal prosecution regarding any on-farm violations of state law. Such agencies include the Missouri Department of Agriculture, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the local county sheriff and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Bob Baker, a representative of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, spoke in opposition to several sections within the bill. As the bill is currently drafted, if an employee or a neighbor noticed illegal activity on an agricultural property, they would not be able to offer their witness testimony in court, Baker said.

"Ironically, this is not even good for the farmers," Baker said. "If a crime is committed on their farm, (the farmer) cannot testify."

Haden said it is unlikely this section will be revised, although he will likely consider revisions that would ensure the bill does not prohibit the authority of municipal police departments and state Highway Patrol officers from enforcing the law on agricultural properties.

More organizations submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill, but copies were not provided Tuesday.

The bill's supporters contended it would offer farmers clarity about the authority of inspectors and their purposes for inspecting farm facilities.

"Also, it provides clarity to those respective agencies, so they know what authority they have," said Mike Deering, a representative of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. In addition to the Cattlemen's Association, supporters of the bill include the Missouri Soybean Association, the Missouri Pet Breeders Association, the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners, the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Corn Growers Association.

According to informational testimony by Eleni Bickell with MOST Policy Initiative, information about who is authorized to conduct on-site inspections of which agricultural facilities is often unclear, and ambiguity often exists about how frequently such inspections must occur. Bickell noted off-farm food safety inspections would not be affected by this bill.

The bill would prohibit county health officials from having authority to complete environmental inspections of facilities.

"I don't know any county health departments that have anybody who has expertise enough to go into one of these units," Haden said.

Charter counties and any cities not located in a county are exempt from the provisions within this legislation.

State Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, has introduced a similar bill, SB 254, that has not yet been assigned to committee.

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.

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