Countries around the world are closing their ports to Brazilian meat, following the revelation that health inspectors there had been routinely bribed to allow the sale of expired and adulterated meat into the domestic and international marketplace. The Brazilian federal police say 38 arrest warrants were issued across six Brazilian states and the capital of Brasilia following a two-year investigation, all of which began thanks to a tip from a whistleblower.
Two behemoth meatpackers—JBS and BRF—were among those accused of mixing chemicals, water, unadulterated meat, manioc flour, acid, and even pig's heads with tainted meat to disguise its appearance and smell. The rotten meat was then sold to unsuspecting customers in Brazil and across the world.
Prosecutors say that the investigation revealed a scheme in which meat inspectors were bribed to allow the bad meat to be sold. Some of that money is said to have been funneled into Brazil's two major political parties—including the party of Brazilian President Michel Temer. Following the disclosure of the scandal, China, the EU, and Chile have all taken steps to bar the import of Brazilian beef into their countries.
Brazil is one of the largest exporters of beef in the world; it enjoys $12 billion in annual exports to approximately 150 countries. In a speech on Monday, during which he hoped to calm international outrage, President Temer told the American Chamber of Commerce, "The agro business for us in Brazil is very important and it should not be marred by a small nucleus [of bad actors]." He called the scandal "a small thing."
The federal police claim that the meatpackers basically had the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry in their pockets; the companies paid for the right to pick inspectors of their liking, and were pretty much guaranteed positive inspection certificates, regardless of the quality of the meat. Judge Marcos Josegrei da Silva called the involvement of the Agriculture Ministry "staggering" and said, "The ministry was taken hostage by a group of individuals that repeatedly betrayed their obligation of serving society."
Both JBS and BRF have denied any wrongdoing. JBS is one of the largest meat processors in the world, with 150 plants worldwide; BRF calls itself "one of the biggest producers of refrigerated and frozen protein foods in the world."
MUNCHIES has reached out to both JBS and BRF for comment, but has yet to receive a statement from JBS. BRF provided us with the following comment: "BRF never sold rotten mean and has never been accused of this. The mention of non-specific products, under the Investigation, are in relation to other companies, which can be evidenced in the material disclosed by the Brazilian federal police. BRF regrets that part of the press mistakenly included its name in reports that discuss this issue, confusing consumers and the society." BRF added that it is "expressing its support to the inspection of the sector and to the society's right to information based on the facts, without generalizations that may harm the reputation of reputable companies and generate unnecessary alarm to the population."
JBS released a statement on Monday in which the company claimed it had been "inappropriately connected to this story." It went on to state that "There are no allegations in the judge's order that JBS or its executive management violated food safety or product quality standards or engaged in any wrongdoing. The investigation is focused on the actions of Brazilian Federal Meat Inspectors."
Brazilian President Temer tried to assure foreign governments that Brazilian exports are safe, but spokesman Enrico Brivio said the EU would "guarantee that any of the establishments involved in the fraud will be suspended." China followed suit by suspending the unloading of Brazilian meats in Chinese ports. Then Chile did the same.
As of yesterday, Brazil said it had closed three plants and was barring the exports of meats from 21 others under investigation. Sales of meat for internal consumption in Brazil, though, were said not to be affected, even though one of the allegations in the bribery scheme involves schoolchildren in Parana, who were served "outdated, rotten and many times cancerous products."
Meanwhile, President Temer was trying hard to stem the tide of countries barring Brazilian beef imports. And what better way then by inviting ministers to a Brazilian-style churrasco?
Yes, that happened: Cameras were brought into a churrascaria, where President Temer showily enjoyed a steak in the company of several foreign ambassadors.
Eat at your own risk, queridos amigos.
UPDATE: A spokesperson for JBS has provided MUNCHIES with the following statement: The order from the federal court that triggered the operation makes no mention of any problems affecting the safety or quality of any JBS or other brand products. The regrettable news of product tampering reported by the media does not involve any JBS brands. No JBS units have been shut down by the authorities. Despite reports in some media outlets, none of the company's executives or officers were targeted by court orders.