Supreme Court dismissal halts N.B. chicken dispute

Canada’s top court has shut the door on New Brunswick chicken processor Nadeau Poultry’s efforts to lock in a supply of birds it says are being siphoned off by a rival plant under construction.

The Supreme Court of Canada announced Thursday it has dismissed, with costs, Nadeau’s application for leave to appeal a June ruling from the Federal Court of Appeal.

The appellant court had upheld a June 2009 decision by the federal Competition Tribunal, which had dismissed a petition by Nadeau’s owner — Brampton, Ont. processor Maple Lodge Farms — against New Brunswick poultry producer Groupe Westco.

Westco, in a joint venture with Quebec meat packer Olymel, is building "Sunnymel," a $40 million chicken slaughter, cutting and deboning plant at Clair in northwestern New Brunswick, for completion by the end of 2012.

Pending construction of the Clair plant, with a planned capacity of about 450,000 birds per week, Westco in 2009 began shipping its chickens to Olymel plants in Quebec for processing.

Nadeau, which since then has announced two rounds of substantial layoffs at its plant at nearby St-Francois-de-Madawaska, has claimed the Sunnymel partners’ agreement stood to starve its own plant’s supply of chickens from Westco’s barns.

The federal tribunal in 2009 found Westco’s decision to stop supplying Nadeau does not constitute a "refusal to deal" in competition law and was "in no way illegal," Westco said at the time.

"Lay down arms"

Now that the Supreme Court has closed Nadeau’s last avenue of appeal, Nadeau "will therefore be obliged to lay down its arms and accept Westco’s business decision to slaughter its own live chickens in a partnership with Olymel," Westco said in a release Thursday.

"All our efforts will now be focused on completing our major slaughterhouse project in Clair and creating a large number of stable jobs in the region," Westco CEO Thomas Soucy said.

Westco noted it has been "victorious" against other actions by Nadeau, including the latter company’s rejected 2008 complaint with Chicken Farmers of New Brunswick calling for a "guaranteed supply system." CFNB’s decision was upheld by the New Brunswick Farm Products Commission and New Brunswick Court of Appeal, Westco added.

The previous Liberal government in New Brunswick responded to Nadeau’s first major round of layoffs in 2010 with a ministerial order designating Nadeau as the only federally-inspected plant for processing chickens raised within the province.

That order was later invalidated in New Brunswick’s Court of Queen’s Bench and the Liberals were voted out in September that year.

Nadeau in February also proposed a New Brunswick Chicken Marketing Agency that would deal "solely" with the marketing of broiler chickens past the farm gate, but the province has rejected that idea.

At one point in September 2009, a highway blockade, reportedly manned by angry Nadeau employees, went up temporarily to stop trucks shipping Westco birds to Olymel plants.

Arson

The Sunnymel plant’s construction site on Nov. 12 was hit with what Westco called "several hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage," in fires that local RCMP and the provincial fire marshal’s office on Monday confirmed were "deliberately set."

A dump truck at the site was "completely destroyed" and the culprit or culprits tried also to set several utility trailers on fire but did not succeed, RCMP said Monday.

Nadeau in November urged the media and public to "refrain from speculation and allow investigating authorities’ adequate time to examine all circumstances and evidence surrounding the event," also noting it "condemns such (alleged) criminal activity and appeals to anyone with information to come forward and co-operate with RCMP in the interest of public safety."

Westco and Olymel have said the vandalism did not derail construction, adding last week that they expect to complete foundation components at the site "before the holiday season."

Sunnymel management last week also began the hiring process for about 250 positions at the Clair plant, including labourers, electricians, mechanics, a financial controller, foremen, quality control supervisors, health and safety officers and office staff.

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