Leader Blues

Thursday, July 03, 2008

TOP STORY > >Rice farmers in court

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Claiming that contamination with genetically engineered rice in 2006 drove down prices, an England (Lonoke County) farmer and Carlisle landowner have filed a multi-million dollar class-action lawsuit against Riceland Foods of Stuttgart.

Harold West and Joanne West, the landowners, and Robert Webb, the farmer, filed suit in Lonoke County Circuit Court on Wednesday on behalf of approximately 4,000 Lonoke County farmers and landowners. They claimed that Riceland Foods knew the rice seed stock was contaminated in time to head off planting the strains in question, but suppressed that information until the crop was already in the ground and nearing harvest.

The contamination made the rice ineligible for purchase by two of the largest markets in the world.

“Today’s filing is a continuation of the long, painful road Arkansas’ rice farmers have traveled since the August 18, 2006 announcement that tainted rice had entered the state’s rice crop became public,” attorney Paul Byrd said.

“While Riceland Foods is a very important corporation in Arkansas, they breached the trust of their farmer members—and that’s all rice farmers—by failing to act in a timely and proper manner.”

The case has been assigned to Lonoke County Circuit Judge Philip Whiteaker. Local counsel is Jerry Kelly of Carlisle.

Byrd, handling the case for Hare, Wynn, Newell and Newton Law Firm, would not say how much he thought farmers were due in actual and punitive damages.

“It kind of affected the market, by keeping the information to themselves,” Webb said Thursday. “Riceland knew it eight months before they released the information.”

Webb, who has farmed 40 years, said he and his two sons generally plant 1,200 to 1,500 acres of rice with a potential harvest of 250,000 bushels.

“If that put the price off 50 cents a bushel, that would be $125,000,” said Webb.

“It didn’t hurt production,” he said, “It hurt the market.”

Locally, producers who had hoped for $4.50 or $5 per bushel of rice may have settled for prices closer to $3.50 to $4 a bushel, according to one farmer.

West wouldn’t comment Thursday other than to identify himself as a landowner, not a farmer.

When 17 producers sued Riceland and Bayer CropScience LLD, which had planted and tested the genetically modified Liberty Link rice in August 2006 over the same incident, Riceland spokesman Bill J. Reed said the problem was industry wide, not just with Riceland.
He said that Riceland heard in January of that year from a customer that the rice was contaminated with the genetically engineered variety, but that it wasn’t confirmed until Bayer CropScience contacted Riceland July 31.

Reed said at the time that Riceland did not notify its members because it was Bayer’s responsibility to tell the USDA of the problem, which he said it did promptly. “We understand the emotion that surrounds the situation,” he said.

Two of the country’s largest rice markets—the European Union and Japan—refuse to import genetically engineered rice, and even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the contamination was equivalent to only about six rice kernels per 10,000, it sent rice prices down.

Farmers said that given sufficient notice, they could have planted rice strains known not to be contaminated or had their seed stock tested, but by the time Riceland and Bayer CropScience told them of the problem, it was too late.

Genetically engineered rice is sold without distinction in the United States and some other countries. Byrd said Wednesday that the Liberty Link rice experimental plots were grown in proximity to commercial rice fields and that Riceland and Bayer should have expected such a problem.

He said they were betting that the Liberty Link would be approved, kind of like a driver with his foot on the gas headed for a red light and hoping it would be green by the time he went through the intersection.

The suit charges Riceland with six counts of general negligence and four counts of ultra-hazardous activity.

It maintains that Riceland had exclusive control over the experimental Liberty Link 62 rice in question and that its planting, testing, growing, harvesting, storage, transporting and disposal of that rice constituted an abnormally dangerous activity.

In the cases filed in August 2006, the 17 plaintiffs each claimed actual damages of $250,000.

Named plaintiffs in the 2006 suit were Randy Schafer; End of the Road Farms, Inc.; Shafer Planting Co.; Wallace Farms; Robert E. Moery; Kyle Moery; Carter Farms Partnership; Robert Petrus; Petrus Seed and Grain Co., Inc.; Gosney Farms; Randall Amaden; R&B Amaden Farms; Randall J. Snider; S&R Farms; A.S. Kelly and sons, and Neil Daniels Farms.