Chinese to sue Government over virus food scare

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The Independent Online

Chinese restaurant and takeaway owners are to sue the Government for compensation after losing an estimated £24m in takings due to false food scares during the foot-and-mouth crisis.

The owners claim officials at the now defunct Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) were responsible for linking the source of the disease to Chinese food. The rumour was reported in several newspapers at the height of the epidemic in March. One tabloid paper published a headline warning: "Sheep and Sour Source".

Chinese restaurants immediately noticed a fall in trade of about 40 per cent. A survey conducted by the Chinese Civil Rights Action Group has found that average losses in the four weeks after the false scares were £1,100 per week in restaurants and £460 per week in takeaways. In total, it is estimated the Chinese catering industry lost £24m in business.

The restaurant owners have instructed the London solicitor Imran Khan, who represented the family of murder victim Stephen Lawrence, to begin legal proceedings.

Jabez Lam, chair of the Chinese Civil Rights Action Group, said the false accusations against Chinese caterers had been "very damaging". He said: "All these allegations came right in the middle of the crisis when people felt the disease was out of control. They fuelled people's anxieties and suspicions and people were naturally very cautious, especially when a report seems to have come from a Government source."

Mr Lam said the food scares could be linked to a rise in racial attacks on Chinese premises. He said: "In the past three weeks we have had six attacks reported. Whether this is because of the foot-and-mouth scares or the general election I don't know but there has definitely been an increase."

The scares led in April to a demonstration through London's Chinatown by about 1,000 protesters who complained of "scapegoating".

The Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown, told the protesters he "despised the underlying racialism" and the "hurt caused to the Chinese community" by the rumours, which he said "should not have been reproduced by the press".

Mr Brown said: "It is not true to say there is evidence that somehow the foot-and-mouth outbreak is anything to do with Chinese catering outlets." He promised an investigation into the source of the stories.

The rumour began after it emerged that a farmer, Jimmy Brown, had collected waste from restaurants in Newcastle upon Tyne's Stowell Street ­ the Chinatown of the North-east ­ for use as pig swill at his farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland. A neighbouring farm has been identified as the place from where foot-and-mouth is believed to have spread across Britain.

*An independent inquiry into foot-and-mouth must be held to insure the epidemic does not happen again, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons said yesterday. It urged the Government to set up an inquiry so that lessons from the farming disaster could be learned across Britain and the EU.

The number of cases of foot-and-mouth rose by one yesterday bringing the total on the UK mainland and Northern Ireland to 1,745.