GLOBAL meat giant Cargill has been firmly put on notice it will be held accountable if a patent claim on cattle genomics which could cost Australia’s beef industry dearly in licence fees is successful.
With the patent claim by United States’ companies Cargill and Branhaven due to be reheard in the Australia Federal Court on Friday, beef industry leaders and senators have urged Cargill to step up and put an end to the bid.
Neither believe Cargill’s claims its hands are tied.
Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) is fighting the acceptance of the patent and the Federal Court has indicated its appeal will be lost if the applicants can narrow their claim by Friday.
Cargill says it can not withhold permission for the claim to be amended due to the type of agreement it has in place with Branhaven and freezing orders issued on account of legal bills being outstanding.
MLA’s managing director Richard Norton this morning told a senate estimates hearing in Canberra of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee that if Cargill simply paid the legal bill the freezing order would be lifted, it could then refuse support for the claim narrowing and the patent would be rejected.
The outstanding legal bill is believed to be around $1.2m.
Queensland Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan said it would cost Cargill far more than that in the long run if it persisted with this patent application.
“Chickens, goats, sheep and pigeons everywhere should be petrified about what is happening here in terms of food production in this country,” he said.
“This is an assault on an entire industry and once the precedent is set (these type of patent claims) will roll on.
“Cargill really needs to look seriously at how they can bring this to an end. I will devote a large part of my time as a senator to exposing Cargill’s involvement in this.
“I don’t want anyone out there with any confusion about Cargill hiding behind inequities in power in an arrangement they have with Branhaven.
“From their lips to my ears, that has been their defence to this point in time.
“I don’t accept Cargill’s claim they are being dragged along like a tin can.”
Mr Norton: “I don’t either.”
Senator O’Sullivan said Cargill was “not doing itself any favours with cattlemen in this country if they don’t bring this to a conclusion with the patent repealed.”
“To put it bluntly, Branhaven are a couple of carpetbaggers with the arse completely out of their pants. Their financial grunt comes from Cargill USA,” he said.
“It looks like we are going to the finish line with this - who is paying the new legal team?”
He said Cargill Australia was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cargill USA and could not claim the ‘distant cousin’ defense.
Mr Norton said the patent claim represented an attempt to have exclusive rights over general discoveries of nature in cattle and was likely to have a chilling effect on Australian research into cattle genomics - inheritable traits.
Asked by senators if the government needed to look at legislation in this area, he replied: “Yes please - look at legislation around these sort of companies that make patent claims, not just in the cattle industry but various others, on naturally-occurring genetic work for animal research or human health.”
Senator O’Sullivan said “any support you want mustered in this place we will give whatever we can.”
MLA had spent more than a million dollars of levy payers’ money defending the application to date and so industry was “obviously not in a position to pay even more in the future on licence fees on what is fundamentally naturally-occurring traits in bovine,” Mr Norton said.
If Cargill spent the time and money they have on “working out how to not be in contempt of court” to pay the legal bill, the matter would be over, he said.
“The ramifications are that all work we are doing as an industry around genomics would be subject to a licence fee paid to a $2 shelf company in the US that is a joint venture partner of Cargills,” he said.
After the hearings, Mr Norton told Fairfax Media as he understands it, there was nothing in the Patents Act that deals with amending a patent where there is more than one patent owner.
“So, I would expect that either both parties have to apply to amend or the part-owner that does not apply has to make it clear that it consents to the amendment application made by the other owner,” he said.
“In the court case Cargill has a submitting appearance so they are basically consenting to any order made by the court, except on costs.
“They could withdraw this and become an active litigant.
“Unless and until they do this, Branhaven can apply to the court to amend and if the court allows that amendment, Cargill is taken to agree with the amendment order.”
Cargill has declined to comment at this stage.