Potato shipment triggers lawsuits

A shipment of potatoes that landed a New Brunswick farmer behind bars in Lebanon has launched a complicated legal action involving three provinces.
New Brunswick potato farmer Henk Tepper has been in a Beirut jail since March 23. (submitted)
A shipment of potatoes that landed a New Brunswick farmer behind bars in Lebanon has launched a complicated legal action involving three provinces.

That lawsuit — which includes Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Quebec — is still making its way through the courts.

Henk Tepper of Tobique Farms in Drummond, New Brunswick, was picked up on March 23 after being red-flagged by Interpol, over a potato shipment he made four years ago.

He was arrested while entering the country on business, but he has not been charged with any offence.

Tepper organized the shipment of potatoes to Algeria back in 2007. The potatoes came from P.E.I. and Quebec, and they were cleared to leave from P.E.I.  However Algeria turned them away because of what they said was bacteria ring rot.

Tepper, 44, is accused of altering the documents that went with the potato shipment. Officials in Algeria claim he changed them.

Tepper's lawyer, Rod Gillis, said the document was altered, but not by his client. He claims it was done in Algeria.

Tobique Farms is suing the groups involved in testing the potatoes, according to court papers. It claims the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the P.E.I. Potato Quality Institute, along with a lab in Quebec, didn't do enough to make sure the testing was done properly and in a timely way.

Tobique Farms also claims it lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because it had to send the shipment to another country after Algeria rejected it.

 And the company says it lost its worldwide reputation because of this.

Lawyer Rod Gillis says Henk Tepper did nothing wrong when he shipped potatoes to Algeria in 2007. ((CBC))
Gillis said the potatoes could have been tested properly.

 "The Quebec potatoes actually arrived about four or five days before the vessel sailed, and they should have picked the potatoes up and taken them to the laboratory. We would've had a test done within a day or two," he said Tuesday.

A small portion of the shipment was from Quebec, but most of the potatoes were shipped through a P.E.I. company, called Red Isle Produce.

Red Isle has filed a $1 million lawsuit against Tobique Farms for failing to pay for the potatoes it bought.

The P.E.I. company says it did everything by the book and the ring rot was in the Quebec portion of the shipment. That is disputed by the Quebec company involved.

Publicity over this incident prompted Algeria to stop importing any Canadian potatoes, a ban that remains in place.

 "It was a very unfortunate incident for the P.E.I. potato industry, and Algeria over probably  20 years or 25 years, has been a great customer of P.E.I. and we do want that business back," Agriculture Minister George Webster said Tuesday.

The various parties in these lawsuits, have been meeting over the past three years. No trial dates have been set yet.