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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Animal feed maker Ridley Inc will pay C$6 million ($5.9 million) to settle class action lawsuits over mad cow disease, in a deal that will see the cases continue against the Canadian government.
Ridley said the deal unveiled on Tuesday does not admit wrongdoing, but caps its liabilities as it remains involved in the cases seeking damages for farmers after Canada's first homegrown BSE case was discovered in 2003.
The company said the settlement involves lawsuits filed in four Canadian provinces, but did not identify them. It has been sued in Quebec, Saskatchewan, Albert and Ontario -- which had also sought to cover farmers from six other provinces.
The Quebec lawsuit, filed in April 2005 on behalf of cattle farmers in that province, claims the federal government was negligent in how it handled cattle imported from Britain in the early 1990s.
Scientists believe imported British cattle brought bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, to Canada. The disease was feared spread to domestic herds by rendered animal protein blended into livestock feed.
Canada banned the use of such feed for cattle in 1997, but has said the cow involved in the first case -- and 10 discovered since then -- involved animals born in Canada before the ban was enacted.
Ridley, which operates in Canada and the United States, said it acted responsibly in producing and labeling its feed products, and was in compliance with all laws at the time.
"Ridley makes no admission of liability or wrongdoing in the matter and we will continue to contest any allegation we were responsible for the plaintiffs' damages," Chief Executive Steve VanRoekel said in a statement.
Canada's cattle industry was devastated by trade bans imposed by other countries after the country's first homegrown BSE case was discovered in 2003.
The United States, Canada's largest beef market, has slowly eased the restrictions, and now allows imports of all Canadian beef as well as live cattle born on or after March 1, 1999.
Ridley will pay the C$6 million into a trust fund, to be paid to farmers who join the lawsuits. It will also allow those suits that were not yet designated class actions to be so. The deal is subject to court approval in the four provinces.
Ridley will continue to incur legal costs as the cases move forward and will fund those expenses out of earnings, it said.
Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing Rob Wilson