Ontario’s supreme court has ordered the provincial government to pay $3.5 million to a company that was at the center of a tainted meat scandal nearly two decades ago, pointing to the province’s “litany of bureaucratic ineptitude” in taking over. temporarily out of business.
In a decision published last week, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the province’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs had a duty of care to Aylmer Meat Packers and its owner, Butch Clare, when it took over the slaughterhouse. from the company in 2003 amid its extensive investigation of contaminated meat.
The ministry took control of the plant for 19 months before handing it back to Aylmer, but “by then the business was destroyed,” Judge Peter Lauwers wrote for the three-member panel.
The appeal largely focused on Clare’s missed opportunity to sell the plant due to the government taking over the slaughterhouse. “Had it not been for the occupation of the ministry, Mr. Clare would have been able to sell,” Lauwers wrote.
Aylmer and Clare had sued the province for negligence, trespassing and conversion and sought damages, but their claim was dismissed at trial. Lauwers said the trial judge erred in several ways, including confusing the province’s duty of care with the standard of care.
“In my view, the ministry’s duty of care was to ensure that its regulatory actions did not unnecessarily or unreasonably harm Aylmer’s business interests,” Lauwers wrote. But his actions in taking over the plant hurt business, he wrote.
Aylmer’s attorney, Jonathan Lisus, said the appeals court was legitimately concerned about the ministry’s intrusive powers. “The lesson from this is that the court will hold regulators accountable for the consequences of their conduct,” Lisus said.
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs declined to comment. A spokesman for the province’s Attorney General’s Office said the province is reviewing the decision but would not comment further.
The ruling said Aylmer Meat Packers was considered one of the busiest slaughterhouses in the province, specializing in processing cows at the end of their milk production and cows that could not stand or walk but were otherwise healthy for slaughter.
In 2003, a confidential informant told the ministry that the plant in Aylmer, Ont., southeast of London, Ont., was illegally processing sick and disabled cows, as well as cows that had died outside the slaughterhouse, all of which are in against the law, the decision said. The whistleblower also alleged that the company used an illegal federal stamp on uninspected carcasses, according to the decision.
That prompted covert surveillance of the plant by inspectors from the Ministry of Natural Resources between May and August 2003, according to the decision. Those inspectors saw suspicious activity and the ministry, along with officers from the Ontario Provincial Police, raided the slaughterhouse, the judge wrote.
The police launched a criminal investigation and eventually brought charges against Aylmer, Clare and their two children. In 2007, Aylmer and Clare pleaded guilty to selling meat that had not been inspected and to selling meat in bags marked Unauthorized Federal Meat Inspection, according to the ruling. Many charges against Clare were dropped, as were all charges against her children.
After the raid in 2003, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs took control of the plant, which ceased operations that day, according to the appeal decision.
The ministry brought in police and then security and “detained” all meat at the plant in sealed freezers, the document says. There were almost 270,000 kilograms of meat in the freezers and another 22,000 kilograms of meat that spoiled in the first 10 days since the government took over the plant.
“What followed the ministry’s initially appropriate actions in stopping meat was a litany of bureaucratic ineptitude,” Lauwers wrote.
Aylmer refused to voluntarily condemn the meat, so it was left in the freezer, the decision says. But the freezer began to break down in 2003, shortly after the ministry took over.
“The meat spoiled because the ministry, noticing the freezer malfunction in September 2003, took no action to repair it for 10 months,” Lauwers wrote.
Repairing the freezer would have cost $20,000, but the court heard during the civil trial that the ministry “generally wanted to avoid that ‘expense,'” even though it was already paying around $40,000 a month in security costs.
After the raid, Aylmer lost his slaughterhouse license, so Clare sought to sell him, according to the ruling. It was a good time to sell meat processing plants, with another of Clare’s slaughterhouses in Kitchener sold for $5.5 million.
“The ministry’s improper occupation of the plant included the presence of security, a locked freezer, and a dilapidated and untidy plant,” Lauwers wrote. “These are clearly not features that would attract a buyer.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 16, 2022.