By Tom Collins
OTTAWA — Critics are worried about potential conflicts of interest with the federal agricultural minister’s new chief of staff, who also happens to be one of the owners of Canada’s largest egg producer-processor, Burnbrae Farms, north of Brockville.
In December, Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay hired Mary Jean McFall, daughter of Joe Hudson, the patriarch of Burnbrae Farms in the village of Lyn. McFall, a lawyer, also ran for the Liberals in the October federal election in the Leeds-Grenville riding, losing to Conservative incumbent Gord Brown.
According to the Financial Post, Burnbrae Farms owns at least 470,000 units of egg quota, which would equal about $141 million at $300 per unit. McFall also sat on the board of the Egg Farmers of Ontario (EFO) for 12 years. The Ottawa Sun reports that McFall’s husband, Ian, is Burnbrae Farm’s vice-president of industrial and food services sales.
Conservative ag critic Chris Warkentin was surprised by McFall’s hire.
“It wasn’t well thought through and the minister needs to recognize that there appears to be a conflict of interest,” he told Farmers Forum. “Ensuring that she isn’t in conflict would require such a significant amount of work from other members of the office that I’m not sure how she could do her job.”
Warkentin said there needs to be assurances that McFall is not influencing policy that might have an effect on Burnbrae or her own personal assets. He wants McFall and MacAulay to testify before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food to answer questions about potential conflicts. MacAuley told iPolitics.ca on Feb. 3 that McFall will not be appearing before the committee.
Warkentin said while it is important for the ag minister and his chief of staff to be connected to agriculture, McFall’s family is simply too big a player in the industry.
“Let me put it this way, I think that there’s very few people that should be excluded from being the chief of staff to the minister of agriculture,” he said. “I know very few farm kids that are reported to have $140 million in farm assets. In the case of McFall’s family, they are significant players in the ag industry. We’re not talking about some mom and pop operation with a couple of hundred hens. We’re talking about having significant market share.”
McFall said she has made arrangements to meet with the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner “so that I can fulfill my obligations in an open and transparent manner. It is essential that I take all steps to avoid any conflicts of interest and, more importantly, prevent the perception of one.”
Burnbrae Farms was involved in a lawsuit launched in 2009. Best Choice Eggs (a division of Sweda Farms, of Blackstock and owned by Svante Lind) launched a $15 million lawsuit against Burnbrae Farms, L.H. Gray & Son Ltd. of Strathroy and the Egg Farmers of Ontario and its general manager Harry Pelissero. The legal battle included numerous charges of bribery, conspiracy, and fraud, based on the argument that the two largest companies and the egg board set out to destroy competing egg producers and inflate profits.
None of the charges have been tested in court and the lawsuit was dismissed against Burnbrae. An appeal of the dismissal is being considered.