ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s Department of Agriculture could soon have direct power to search farms with Tuesday’s passage of a bill to broaden the department’s control over animal disease outbreaks.
The House of Delegates approved the proposal giving the secretary of Agriculture clearer authority to obtain administrative search warrants for farms when violations of animal health laws are suspected.
The bill – one of several proposals recommended by the Anti-Terrorism Task Force after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and the Pentagon – gained Senate approval last week.
The proposal now heads to Gov. Parris Glendening, who supports the package of anti-terrorism legislation.
“We’re glad to see that these bills are moving through,” said Raquel Guillory, a Glendening spokeswoman. “It’s part of our major effort to address a new level of security that we unfortunately have to face.”
With recent outbreaks of foot-and-mouth diseases abroad, the bill provides procedures to handle possible epidemics here, said Valerie Connelly of the Maryland Farm Bureau.
“We saw what happened in Europe where (foot-and-mouth disease) sat there for three weeks,” she said. “We want to make sure a remedy is in place.”
Under the bill, the secretary must first try to gain voluntary access to private property before a warrant is required. The warrant would be limited in nature, scope and location to prevent abuses.
At a Senate hearing last month, Secretary Hagner Mister told lawmakers the bill was needed to protect Maryland farmers against contagious diseases, including foot-and-mouth disease.
“This was definitely a subject of concern for the department,” said spokesman Don Vandrey. “We are pleased to see this legislation moving forward.”
The fast-spreading disease – which causes excessive drooling and blisters on the mouths and feet of cloven-hoofed animals such as cows and sheep – ravaged the European livestock industry last year.
The outbreak in Britain forced officials to ban exports of all live animals and slaughter livestock suspected of the disease and in affected areas.
Spates of mad cow disease, a chronic, degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system of cattle, also have hit Europe in the last few years, devastating the farm economy. The disease Bovine spongiform encephalopathy causes fatal neurological damage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Maryland’s economy also would take a hard hit if such a highly contagious disease spread in the state, according to the bill’s fiscal analysis.
The state’s cattle industry is worth $202 million, while the dairy cow industry is worth $181 million, according to the Agriculture in Maryland Summary for 2000-2001.