U.S. lawyer has eyes trained on Canadian E. coli meat backers

After 45 illnesses including 11 hospitalizations and one death over the past three months from E. coli O157:H7 tainted beef, Canadian journalists have responded with … a yawn.

No coverage at all, except for robotic re-readings of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) press release which didn’t even identify the slaughter plant. The U.S. once again told Canadians they were sick.

One reporter, however, did manage to put some pieces together after talking with Seattle lawyer Bill Marler yesterday.

Neil Waugh of the Edmonton Sun notes today that the company that supplied the E. coli O157:H7 contaminated beef to the now bankrupt Topps Meats was Ranchers Beef Ltd. of Balzac, Alberta, which collapsed on Aug.15 after company president Tony Martinez reported in a court affidavit that his outfit was "in the midst of a severe liquidity crisis".

In other words it was broke. And likely would have stayed that way if the United States Department of Agriculture hadn’t blown the whistle on what Ranchers and the feds’ controversial Canadian Food Inspection Agency were doing – or apparently NOT doing -last summer.

The CFIA, in typical butt-covering mode, identified the dirty plant only as "a meat facility in Alberta."

But the Americans don’t play by Stephen Harper’s rules and fingered the fingerprints as coming from "Ranchers Beef Ltd, Canadian establishment 630."

And it gets even more confusing when you dig into the USDA notice, which reveals: "on one or more days Ranchers Beef may have retested, found negative, and exported boneless beef manufacturing trimmings that had originally tested presumptive positive for E. coli."

Waugh explains that the company business plan was "developed in the wake of the 2003 BSE crisis," Martinez told the court, as a result of the "near decimation" of the Canadian cattle industry when the U.S. border was closed.

And it wasn’t just a brainwave of 45 unidentified ranchers plus Sunterra Foods and Picture Butte feedlot kingpin Cor Van Raay.

In an attempt to "ameliorate the reliance" on U.S. markets, the Alberta and federal governments "developed policies to encourage construction of Canadian-based meat processing facilities."

There was a $46.5-million loan from Alberta Treasury Branches, the feds’ Business Development Bank and the National Bank of Canada.

A $20-million "credit enhancement" from the federal ag department added to the taxpayers’ exposure.

The Alberta Agricultural Financial Services also kicked in $9.35 million in "credit facilities" so investors could "purchase" company preferred shares.

Construction of the plant began in June 2006, but by last August, Martinez was reporting "current liabilities of $12.4 million" and "insufficient current assets to meet current obligations."

"We will clearly have to look at additional assets," said Seattle lawyer Bill Marler, who has already filed a class-action suit against Topps.

"We’re going upstream looking at who supplied the meat," said Marler, who has already collected more than $250 million in food poisoning litigation. "Who owns them and what’s their backing."

What’s worse, a group called the Canadian Supply Chain Food Safety Coalition, whose mission is to

"facilitate, through dialogue within the food industry and with all levels of government, the development and implementation of a national, coordinated approach to food safety to ensure credibility in the domestic and international marketplaces"

came out today and said that Canadian provincial and the federal ministers of agriculture should provide more taxpayer money to industry to try harder and not make people sick.

So, Canadian taxpayers get fleeced for millions, 45 get sick and one dies, the Americans have to point it out, and the industry asks for more taxpayer money to tell Canadians if they get sick it’s their fault.

Bill Marler will be in touch.