The claims, filed under a provision of the North American Free-Trade Agreement in Washington on Thursday, seek damages for investments in feedlots and farms hurt by the border closure since May 2003. The closure followed discovery of a lone case of mad cow disease in an Alberta cow.
The plan is to get other Canadian producers to file similar claims in order to pressure politicians in Washington to take action, said Rick Paskal, a feedlot owner and spokesman for the group called Canadian Cattlemen for Fair Trade.
"We hope to build on this claim. We have participants from Alberta to Quebec right now,'' Paskal said, noting the first five claims seek a total of $113 million in damages.
"We hope to get a half-a-billion-dollar suit, maybe a billion-dollar suit against the United States government. We hope this will open the border," Paskal said.
Ted Haney, president of the Canada Beef Export Federation, said the NAFTA claims clearly show producers are fed up waiting for the border to reopen.
"There is an increasing level of frustration that the border may not have been closed legitimately, and that the border has not reopened quick enough," Haney told CBC Newsworld.
"Industry frustration is now clearly directed toward more aggressive actions."
The effect of the single case of mad cow disease has ravaged Canada's beef industry and hurt rural communities that depend on it. Some estimates say producers have lost up to $1.5 billion.
Despite U.S. authorities having declared Canadian beef safe, the border remains closed to live cattle, and a massive backlog of older cattle is expected to reach crisis proportions this fall.
"The Americans kept telling us that the border closure was a temporary measure," Paskal said. "We are well into another year and nobody knows when the border will reopen, if ever. It's time to do something about this problem before it's too late."