THE JOURNAL Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Lawsuit mystifies Alta. beef producers
Toronto law firm’s class-action suit against federal gov’t seeks $7B
Journal Staff Reporter
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
A group claiming to represent more than 100,000 cattle producers battered by mad cow disease is suing the federal government for $7 billion in damages, accusing federal officials of not preventing the BSE crisis.
In a case that caught many in the beef industry by surprise, a Toronto law firm has filed a class- action suit saying Agriculture Canada was “grossly negligent” for allowing BSE-infected cattle from the United Kingdom in the 1980s to enter the Canadian animal food chain.
If successful, the case could be the costliest lawsuit in Canadian history it is meant to recover the estimated $7 billion producers have lost since the border was closed two years ago due to the discovery of a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy on a northern Alberta farm.
Representatives of Alberta’s beef industry were mystified by the legal proceedings.
“I think it’s a mean-spirited action,” said Ben Thorlakson, chairman of the Canadian Beef Export Federation. “I don’t have a real problem with the way the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has handled things.”
Arno Doerksen, chairman of the Alberta Beef Producers, wouldn’t speculate whether it will be successful. “It’s a pretty clear indication of the frustration there is over this. Apart from that, I don’t know any of the4letails or who is involved.”
Statements of claim filed in courts in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec last week blame the BSE outbreak on badly designed feed regulations, non-existent safety reviews and massive oversight.
“The federal regulators started the whole thing,” said Toronto lawyer Cameron Pallett. “They dropped the ball and then ... stuck a knife into the cattle producers and offered them a Band-Aid.”
As a class-action, the lawsuit contains the name of only a few cattle producers, but purports to represent all those affected by the mad cow crisis.
“Once the class action is filed, as long as you come within the definition of the class set out in the court document that has been filed, your rights are protected,” said Calgary lawyer Vaughn Marshall, who specializes in class-action suits.
If the suit is successful, cattle producers will have to come forward and prove their entitlement to compensation, he said. There is no list of 100,000 clients, he said. “The class defines a group of people, and if you take the time to count them, they would probably reach 100,000.”
Class actions are new to Alberta as a result of a change in provincial law a year ago.
The statement of claim alleges as many as 80 of the 191 cattle imported from Ireland and the U.K between 1982 and 1990 may have ended up as animal feed, causing BSE to spread to uninfected cattle. It says 10 of the animals came from BSE-infected herds in the U.K despite a surveillance system that should have kept them out of Canada.
It also faults the government for failing to ban feed made from rendered cattle parts and bone meal until 1996, even though Great Britain outlawed the feed eight years earlier.
Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials have said the cow diagnosed with BSE in 2003 was likely infected by tainted feed.
A statement of claim contains allegations that haven’t been proven in court. A statement of defence hasn’t been filed.
Government officials defended their procedures. “At the time, we didn’t have the information to justify taking further actions,” said Dr. Gary Little, senior staff veterinarian with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
With files from the Ottawa Citizen