JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A proposal to limit who can inspect farms in Missouri came close to passing last year, and its sponsor is trying again.
State Rep. Kent Haden, R-Mexico, has introduced a bill that would limit who can inspect grounds and operations 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 or the county sheriff could inspect those sites.
Haden said the bill is meant to protect producers from animal rights activists who insist they have 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 in order to limit the spread of disease, he said. The bill only applies to animal production, so county health departments could still inspect processing operations.
Opponents argue that it will take away authority from local health departments that may need to inspect a farm if there’s a manure spill or a disease outbreak.
It is the latest in an ongoing struggle between counties and agricultural operations over regulation.
Haden used to work as a regulatory veterinarian for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, and he said there were times when animal rights activists flashed 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 who was hostile to their operation onto their property. Haden says his bill would address that problem by making clear exactly who has authority to inspect farms in Missouri.
Along with protecting farmers from fake inspections, Haden said his bill also would protect legitimate inspectors. When he was a regulatory veterinarian, he would go to farms to help local law enforcement with horse welfare cases. There was confusion within the department as to whether they actually had the authority to inspect a farm for those cases. Haden’s personal attorney told him he could be prosecuted for harassment, so Haden asked the department if they’d 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 that those regulatory veterinarians have authority to be there, he added.
The Missouri Association of Local Public Health Agencies opposed the bill in a hearing before the House Agriculture Policy Committee on Wednesday, arguing it limits 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 operations, Miller County Health Center Administrator Michael Herbert stated in an email to the Globe. They also investigate communicable disease outbreaks, and they would need to have access to farms if one is the source of an outbreak, he said.
Haden’s bill allows for the Missouri Department of Agriculture “or its representative” to inspect production sites. It also allows any other state or federal agency that regulates agriculture to inspect them, but it would not allow county 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 trained in the measures animal producers take to keep diseases from spreading, Haden said. The county sheriff would still be allowed to inspect because they are the ones who enforce animal welfare ordinances, not any state or federal agency, he said.
Haden said producers have millions of dollars invested in their animals, and they are careful to protect them from diseases such as 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 U.S., 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. They’ll also provide clothes to wear inside, and require visitors to shower before going in and coming out, he said.
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 boot from a mat at a convenience store, he said. The state and federal agriculture departments have investigators who are trained in those biosecurity measures and would 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 be facing a huge loss. It’s not clear who would be liable for that, Haden said, but there would have to 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 more strict than state or federal rules. Opponents argued that bill took away 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 supported limiting county CAFO regulations, but his bill isn’t about CAFOs, he said.
The Cedar County Commission and Cooper County Health Board are suing to defend their local regulations, arguing the law is unconstitutional, and that their regulations should be grandfathered in if it is found to be constitutional. 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 added.
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 Haden said he asked for it to be removed when a filibuster over his bill threatened to stop the entire agriculture bill from passing.