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N.B. poultry partners rip rival over layoffs

A dispute over who will slaughter and process New Brunswick poultry has so far spilled over into a temporary blockade against two of the sector’s major players.

New Brunswick poultry production company Groupe Westco and Quebec meat packer Olymel, who plan a new joint-venture poultry plant in the region, say a rival firm’s unwillingness to compromise led to layoffs that in turn led to the blockade.

Westco and Olymel on Sept. 1 announced plans for a $30 million poultry slaughter and processing facility at Clair, N.B., southwest of Edmundston. While that project is under construction, the agreement calls for Westco’s member farmers to deliver their birds to Olymel slaughter plants in Quebec.

However, the arrangement with Olymel freezes out Nadeau Poultry Farm, which operates a nearby slaughter plant at St-Francois-de-Madawaska, N.B. that previously handled Westco farms’ birds.

According to a report Tuesday on CBC, Nadeau has announced layoffs for 175 workers, over half its plant’s staff, as a result.

CBC reported Tuesday that Nadeau workers had blockaded a Westco truck on Route 205 starting Monday night. The truck was loaded with birds bound for an Olymel plant at Berthierville, Que., about 65 km southwest of Trois-Rivieres.

According to a report Wednesday on the website of Quebec ag newspaper La Terre de chez nous, the Nadeau workers were no longer blocking Westco’s trucks.

Westco and Olymel, in a statement Tuesday, faulted Nadeau’s parent company, meat packer Maple Lodge of Brampton, Ont., for not immediately accepting an offer of mediation by the New Brunswick government, “in order to find a rapid solution that would protect jobs.”

“Refused proposals”

“Five times in the past few weeks, Maple Lodge has refused positive proposals that would have protected jobs, even though it has lost all the appeals it has lodged with the courts,” Westco CEO Thomas Soucy said in the statement.

“For our part, we accepted the government’s offer of mediation as soon as we received it, even though nothing requires us to reach agreement with (Nadeau) apart from our desire to protect the workers in the long term.”

Maple Lodge recently sought a federal Competition Tribunal order to secure its supply of New Brunswick poultry from Westco. Nadeau, according to Westco and Olymel, had wanted an order compelling Westco to accept a supply agreement to deliver live chickens to Nadeau’s processing plant. The tribunal in June 2009 dismissed that application.

In a separate ruling Aug. 20, the New Brunswick Court of Appeal confirmed a decision by the New Brunswick Farm Products Commission, finding that Westco and other poultry producers are not obliged to allocate a part of their production to Maple Lodge.

Olymel and Westco previously said they read the decisions of both the tribunal and the provincial commission to mean that even if Westco no longer supplies Nadeau with live chickens, it would still be able to keep its slaughter plant operating by sourcing chickens from breeders in other provinces, particularly Nova Scotia and Quebec.

Olymel and Westco said Tuesday that after the tribunal ruling, they made “several new proposals” to Maple Lodge, which included an offer to buy the Nadeau slaughterhouse, a possible partnership agreement involving joint operation, a draft agreement on slaughtering at “fair market value” whiel the Clair facility is built, and payment of a premium for the birds.

“All these offers were rejected,” Olymel and Westco said Tuesday.

“Had all summer”

“The fact that we are temporarily sending our production to Quebec is a direct consequence of Maple Lodge’s lack of openness, even though it had all summer to reach an agreement with us,” Soucy said.

“If we can reach a solution that is acceptable to all parties through the mediation process, we will stop shipping birds to Quebec and resume supplying the St-Francois slaughterhouse.”

Maple Lodge, Soucy said, must accept the offer of mediation from New Brunswick Ag Minister Ron Ouellette “without delay.”

“The conditional response given by (Maple Lodge) last week once again demonstrates that it is not doing anything concrete to protect jobs in the industry,” Westco and Olymel said.

Maple Lodge late Wednesday had not released any public response to Westco and Olymel.

Westco has previously said it has no alternative but to build its own new slaughter capacity in northern New Brunswick if it hopes to complete its planned egg-to-plate integration system.

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