COLUMBIA — When Eric and Joanna Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm, 12 miles north of Columbia, decided they wanted to raise and sell pigs this spring, they checked out Missouri laws on feeding.
What they discovered surprised them: It is illegal to feed vegetables to pigs if the animals are going to be sold to consumers in Missouri.
The statute — Title XVII: Agriculture and Animals — says feeding pigs garbage is illegal unless it’s first heated to a boiling point, and Section 266.410 defines garbage as:
- Animal or vegetable refuse matter
- All waste material
- Byproducts of a kitchen, restaurant or slaughterhouse
- Refuse accumulation of animal, fruit or vegetable matter, liquid or otherwise
It's a misdemeanor punishable for every day the law is broken. The penalty for the violation is not specified in the state statute. The Missouri Department of Agriculture was unable to answer questions on the exact amount of the fines.
The Reuters didn't want to risk penalties that would hit them hard as owners of a small farm. But they thought feeding their pigs scraps such as organic vegetables grown on their farm and whey — a byproduct of cheese-making — from their goats or other dairies was something they should be able to do.
The Reuters called the state Department of Agriculture to discuss the inclusion of vegetables in the law.
“We initially called and asked about the meaning of the wording,” Eric Reuter said. “We wanted to know if it applied to on-farm vegetables or whey straight from a dairy, things that don’t involve meat scraps.”
The Reuters said State Veterinarian Taylor Woods told them they could get a free permit to exempt them from the law and allow them to be a garbage-feeding swine operation. The permit process would include several inspections of the farm each year. The Reuters said Woods told them he would send a government veterinarian to their farm to inspect the property and clear them for the permit.
U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian Dane Henry and state Department of Agriculture veterinarian Kent Haden arrived at Chert Hollow Farm with bad news. Woods had decided not to issue the farm a permit.
“When those two vets came out, they told us that Woods had changed his mind and was no longer going to issue any permits for any kind of garbage-feeding whatsoever, and that they were now considering garbage-feeding to be all forms of vegetables and whey, period,” Eric Reuter said.
It was a disappointment for the Reuters, who were expecting to get the permit to feed hogs fresh vegetables grown on their farm. They said they'd never heard of a health risk from plain vegetables.
Eric Reuter said the two government veterinarians agreed with him that there was no risk.
MU Extension swine nutritionist Marcia Shannon agrees that vegetables alone do not pose a problem to the health of swine and that raw meat is the only problem.
Shannon said the only potential problem with vegetables would be if there was fecal or organic matter on the vegetables that was not washed off before it was fed to pigs.
As the Reuters discussed the particulars of the law with the visiting veterinarians, they were told that plucking a turnip from their garden and throwing it to their pigs would be considered illegal.
"There's production in the U.S. where they plant fields of turnips and send the pigs out there to forage on them, so why would pulling it out of a garden and feeding it to them be different?" Shannon said.
A safety measure
The Missouri statute that includes vegetables in the definition of garbage originated in 1959 after an outbreak of vesicular exanthema in swine across the country. The law was written to prevent the spread of the disease, which was eradicated in the U.S. in 1959, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture officials declined to comment about the inclusion of vegetables in the law or the permit denial for Chert Hollow Farm.
But state Director of Agriculture Jon Hagler and Woods did say in an email that vesicular exanthema is not currently an issue in Missouri.
"Animals raised for commercial sale and introduction into the food system would typically be fed rations including corn, oats, barley and soybean meal," the statement read.
The department outlined the rules for raising pigs for personal consumption but did not comment on the definition of garbage in the Missouri law or the possibility of selling vegetable-fed pigs.
"Animals produced for an individual’s personal consumption are not regulated by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, and it is entirely possible for those animals to consume other feedstuffs as outlined in (Section) 266.420," the statement continued. "However, including meat scraps of any kind in feed is not acceptable."
State vs. federal law
The Missouri statute is different from federal law.
The federal version of this law — 9 C.F.R. part 166: Swine Health Protection, Section 166.1 — defines garbage as “all waste material derived in whole or in part from the meat of any animal (including fish or poultry) or other animal material …”
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service wrote in the Federal Register, “The regulations contain provisions that regulate food waste containing any meat products fed to swine.” The definition was clarified: “In accordance with the regulations, food waste containing meat may be fed to swine only if it has been treated to kill disease organisms.”
There is no mention of vegetables, fruit or dairy in the federal law or on the Federal Register regarding the law.
But states have discretion, said Lyndsay Cole, spokeswoman for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
“Like any law, the states have the discretion to create their own laws that govern actions that occur within their own states," Cole said. "That’s what's occurring in this case.”
Enforcement, too, is up to individual states, not the USDA.
"I assume (Missouri's law is) just because when those rules were put in place, which was before our time, that it was easier to just put vegetables into the category of table scraps," Shannon said. "Table scraps meant anything that came off your table. It's a broad term."
Shannon said she thinks the law should be revisited and clarified to clearly define garbage as only uncooked meat.
"Vegetables alone are not the cause for the rare diseases out there. It's uncooked meat," Shannon said. "We feed animal byproducts to pigs. They are just cooked to a certain temperature that's regulated by the government."
Don Nikodim, executive vice president of the Missouri Pork Association, said the feeding of garbage to pigs is the issue in general practice, and what's in garbage varies. It's a pretty broad category, but Nikodim said he assumed the state Department of Agriculture veterinarians looked at the issue from that standpoint and decided not to allow garbage feeding.
“The safe process of feeding pigs is very scientific," Nikodim said. "Our rations (at the Missouri Pork Association) are given attention to detail. . . . Balance is important for pigs to grow and perform and be healthy. I’m sure Dr. Woods’ decision is based off of sound science and facts."
Tim Safranski, an MU associate professor in Animal Science and a state swine breeding specialist, said the Missouri law deals with legitimate food safety issues but said he wasn’t aware that vegetables were included in it.
“Historically, there was a lot of refuse fed to pigs, including things like table scraps. If you feed raw meat to an animal and it gets high levels of bacteria, then you have a greater chance of that being passed on to the people that would eat or process the meat,” Safranski said. “So if it’s been on a plate, there’s concern. If you had a spinach farmer and the spinach was too ripe to sell, I thought that was OK to feed pigs.”
Eric Reuter said he understands the need to heat raw meat or fish scraps to their boiling point in order to eliminate the possibility of disease, but he said it's not necessary or feasible to boil vegetables scraps.
“If I had to haul all of my vegetable scraps back to my kitchen, cook them, cool them and take them back out again, . . . the amount of time involved in that would wipe out the whole point,” Eric Reuter said. “They don’t need to be cooked. They’re clean; they’re fresh vegetables. There’s no reason to cook them if they haven’t had raw meat in them. The point of the cooking law is raw meat.”
Still, the Reuters said they'll follow the law. Although they were advised to consider getting a lawyer to help them take on the state, they said they are not considering it because of the time and expense involved.
Tim Gibbons, communications director at the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, said the law is not meant to hurt small farmers but is an unintended consequence of a law that is decades old.
“There are a lot of laws that support corporate agriculture operations at the expense of independent family farmers and rural communities in general,” Gibbons said. “But this law was made in the 1950s, and there weren’t industrial livestock operations in the 1950s. So it doesn’t sound like this law was made to give an advantage to them, it just happens to now.”
Gibbons pointed out the Reuters could ask their legislator to try to amend the law.
That idea has occurred to Eric Reuter. He has let the issue go for the summer but intends to get back to it in the fall when the Missouri legislature is back in session. He has contacted groups such as the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund for advice.
“We’re going to come back to this and get other people to work with us to make some change,” Eric Reuter said.
But that resolve hasn't alleviated his frustration over the last few months.
“I’ve got a list as long as my arm of people that would buy pork raised the way we do," he said. "They have no worries about the way we do it. But they’re not being given the option to make that choice.”
Most of his frustration is with the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
“They are refusing to even work with us," he said. "They’re not saying, ‘OK, this is cool, this isn’t meat feeding, let’s get you that permit.’ They won’t even do that.”
He sees this particular issue as symbolic of other issues small farmers face.
“There are so many other cases of obscure or poorly thought out or aggressively interpreted law that makes it harder for small farmers or even small businesses to do what they do,” Eric Reuter said.
Missourian reporter Will Floyd contributed to this article.