CHICAGO, Oct 16 (Reuters) - Valuable trade secrets that Cargill Inc claims were stolen by a longtime manager in its meatpacking division who quit for rival JBS SA are nothing more than basic butchery, lawyers for the employee said in court documents.
Privately held Cargill, one of the top U.S. meat producers, is asking a federal judge in Denver to forbid Jason Kuan from working for a competitor for one year to prevent damages stemming from the loss of confidential information.
The dispute illustrates the intense competition among meat producers and processors at a time when beef prices are at record highs and the U.S. cattle herd is at a 60-year low.
In August, Cargill sued Kuan, who led its "case-ready" meat unit in Canada, for allegedly copying hundreds of company documents after he already had a job offer from JBS in Colorado. Kuan, who worked for Cargill for 20 years, did not return the documents when he resigned, according to the complaint.
Kuan's lawyers denied that he stole the materials, according to a court filing this week. They said this month that Cargill's worries about the potential disclosure of trade secrets were misplaced because the meat industry is not highly technical.
They noted that all competitors in the case-ready meat business, in which companies deliver meat to retailers after packaging it at plants, basically purchase, process and sell raw materials in the same way.
"Simply stated, there are only so many ways to cut a steak," Kuan's lawyers said in a motion fighting Cargill's move to keep Kuan from working for a case-ready rival.
Kuan periodically backed up Cargill documents from his work computer onto an external hard drive due to equipment failures and planned to return the documents to the company when he resigned, according to court filings.
However, after Kuan quit, the company served him with an "instant lawsuit" before he was able to return the documents, the filings said, adding that he subsequently returned all the materials.
Cargill believes Kuan "fabricated an unreliable 'computer backup' story" after being caught stealing trade secrets and that he cannot refrain from using the company's confidential information in his job as president of JBS's case-ready business, court documents show.
The case is Cargill Inc v. Jason Kuan, U.S. District Court, District of Colorado, No 14-cv-02325. (Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Alan Crosby)