Brazil tried to reassure the world Sunday that its huge meat industry poses no threat despite allegations that major exporters have been selling tainted beef and poultry with falsified inspection certificates. President Michel Temer held crisis talks in the capital Brasilia with meat industry representatives, Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi and Trade Minister Marcos Pereira.
He was then due to meet with foreign ambassadors. Brazil, the world’s biggest beef and chicken exporter, with clients in some 150 countries, is scrambling to stop the fallout from police allegations of corruption and unsanitary practices in the industry. Police say meat producers bribed health inspectors for years to certify tainted food as fit for consumption. At least 30 people have been arrested, with police raiding more than a dozen processing plants and issuing 27 arrest warrants.
A poultry-processing plant run by the multinational BRF group and two meat-processing plants operated by the local Peccin company were shut down, the Agriculture Ministry said. There have been no reports of people made sick as a result of the alleged practices. Luis Eduardo Pacifici Rangel, secretary of agricultural protection, told reporters that the quality of Brazilian meat overall was not in doubt. “The information… is really worrying regarding corruption and the criminal organization that was dismantled by police. But from the sanitary point of view, we are completely confident that the problems mentioned there bring no risk for population, neither for exports,” he told reporters before meeting with Temer.
Meat processors BRF went on the counter-offensive, taking aim at allegations that cardboard was mixed into chicken products. “There is no cardboard of any kind in BRF products. There’s been a big misunderstanding in the (audio) recordings of the police,” the company said in a statement.
Fears of trade fallout
For Brazil, the worry is that the scandal will ruin global appetites for its food. Principal markets are located as far apart as Saudi Arabia, China, Singapore, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands and Italy. Brazil exported about $5.9 billion in poultry and $4.3 billion in beef in 2016, according to Brazilian government data. Temer — whose government is already battered by a huge embezzlement scandal and Brazil’s deepest recession in history — is also worried that the row will impact on attempts to negotiate a trade deal between South America’s Mercosur group with the European Union.
The EU ambassador to Brazil, Joao Cravinho, tweeted on Sunday that he wanted “complete, urgent clarifications from the agriculture ministry.” “It really complicates negotiations,” admitted Brazilian under secretary general for economic and financial affairs at the foreign ministry, Carlos Marcio Cozendey. However, he likewise insisted that the problems were limited in scope. “From the criminal, corruption point of view, it’s obviously a very serious incident,” Cozendey told AFP. However, “based on what we know now, it won’t impact the control system as a whole.” He urged that any response to the crisis be “proportional” and said foreign partners should not overreact. “I hope that this is not used to unjustifiably close markets.”
The authorities have not yet detailed where tainted products were found, but say that in some cases carcinogenic substances were used to mask the smell of bad meat. In addition to the giant BRF firm, which owns the Sadia and Perdigao brands, companies under investigation include JBS, a world leader in meat sales and owner of the Big Frango, Seara Alimentos and Swift brands. JBS took out a full-page ad in the newspaper O Globo to say that the federal office conducting the investigation had made no mention of health problems stemming from JBS products.
The BRF group is running similar ads, saying its products pose no health risk “whatsoever.” An ad in which actor Robert De Niro testifies to the quality of JBS’s Seara ham — with its “authentic Italian flavor” — has gotten heavy play on Brazilian television. But Professor Silvia Farias, who shops in a Rio supermarket, was feeling anxious. “We go to the supermarket, we buy meat for our family’s consumption, and what do we expect? That it is in good condition,” she told AFP. “I would never imagine that the meat could be mixed with cardboard.”
By Eugenia LOGIURATTO