Edmonton-area potato farms, CFIA await Supreme Court ruling over faulty parasite tests

The Supreme Court of Canada will rule Thursday on an ongoing court battle over faulty soil tests which wrongly concluded two Edmonton area farms were contaminated with a destructive, microscopic pest.

The testing, which found the presence of potato cyst nematode — a wormlike parasite that blemishes crops, devours roots and decimates crop yields — resulted in both farms being quarantined and halted seed potato exports from Alberta into the U.S. until early 2009.

The nematodes, which do not pose a risk to human health, are difficult to eradicate as they can survive dormant in soil for decades.

Northbank Potato Farms Ltd. and Haarsma Farms Ltd. claim the tests done in 2007 showed false positives and are seeking compensation for their losses.

The growers had filed a joint lawsuit against the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and ABC Laboratory for negligence, claiming “loss of profit, goodwill and land value.”

But the CFIA maintains the growers already received compensation for their losses through a federal assistance program and wants the lawsuit dismissed. 

The Supreme Court will decide Thursday if the growers will be granted leave to launch a final appeal and have their case heard. 

“We won our first court case but they won on appeal and then we appealed that and we lost,” said Northbank co-owner Ernie Van Boom in an interview Wednesday with CBC News.  “Our next and last step is the Supreme Court.” 

We were able to pull up our bootstraps and get some market back, but it’s been a slow recovery for us.-Ernie Van Boom

The case stems from mid-2007 when the CFIA initiated testing for the presence of potato cyst nematode. 

Four cysts were identified in soil samples from one field located on the Enoch Cree Reserve and farmed by Haarsma.

Another cyst was identified in soil samples from a field owned by Fort Hills Energy Corporation and farmed by North Bank.

‘You can’t shake it. It’s never forgotten’

The CFIA required the farms to destroy their seed potato crops, prohibited production and sale of potatoes from their land, and placed restrictions on their farm equipment. 

The United States and Mexico closed their borders to Alberta potato exports. 

The CFIA was unable to replicate a positive reading for nematodes in the affected fields, even after doing thousands of tests. 

Van Boom believes there was cross contamination during the testing.

“Once you’ve got them, they’re there,” he said. “You don’t have them and then they’re gone. There never were nematodes in there.”

To help producers deal with losses related to the quarantine and border closure, Ottawa and the province created a $16-million compensation fund. 

Van Boon said he received a payout, but it wasn’t enough to cover his losses following the destruction of his $2-million crop. 

“It was a good payment at the time, but it only covered our losses for that year, nothing else,” he said.

“It’s a stigma; it’s a reputation that you get and you can’t shake it. It’s never forgotten. 

“We were able to pull up our bootstraps and get some market back, but it’s been a slow recovery for us.”

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