Meat industry turns to lawyers in bid to win BSE compensation

FOR the few lawyers in the UK who practise contentious farming law the latest BSE scare has brought a deluge of enquiries from those involved in the meat trade.

Farmers, livestock auctioneers and food companies have already asked lawyers to seek legal aid to enable counsel to explore possible courses of action against the Government.

Some lawyers are predicting a class action, suggesting that there are not enough specialists for individual farmers to take action. Agrilaw, which represents firms with specialised agricultural departments, has already decided to pool the resources of all its five members in the event of mass action.

Nigel Davis, a member of Agrilaw and partner at Shakespeares in Birmingham, said: “The Government has got to act quickly not only to allay the fears of the public but also to produce realistic proposals to compensate farmers.”

William Neville, head of the European agricultural unit at Bristol-based Burges Salmon, is working closely with the National Farmers Union on the issue. He said it was too early to start talking about class actions and recrimination and he criticised “knee-jerk” reactions by EU member states and certain commercial organisations in the UK.

Neville said: “The lawyer's job is to provide consistent and coherent advice and to make sense of what is going on.

“The focus from all sides should be on solving the problem at this stage rather than on recrimination.”

All lawyers rejected the idea of suing the cattle feed manufacturers. Robert Swift, a partner at Wilsons in Salisbury, said: “We must wait and see what the Government decides before we consider the legal remedies. Press reports about suing the food manufacturers are misinformed. The incriminating feed was used too long ago for there to be sufficient evidence to sue.”

Richard Vidal, legal adviser at the NFU, said the union was advocating a limited slaughter policy of the suspected infected animals with relevant compensation from the Government.

Five firms, McGrigor Donald, Alsop Wilkinson, Dickinson Dees, Osborne Clarke and Pinsent Cutis have formed a BSE network. The consortium met for the first time in Edinburgh last week.