March 24, 2017
Brazil's meat scandal: A case of good intentions blowing up in the face of its own bungling government?
BY F.E. OLIMPO
A week since Brazil shocked the world with its own rotten meat scandal a la China, it is beginning to look like a case of a government becoming a victim of its own success.
But with some reports about some bunglings in the two-year investigation that led to the current crackdown on supposedly erring meat processing companies and federal meat inspectors, this could in fact be another manifestation of a bumbling leadership.
At least until a week ago, Brazil was the world's largest beef and poultry meat exporter. More than any country, it exported US$5.9 billion of chicken and US$4.3 billion of beef last year, with many countries as customers.
On March 17, in what they probably thought would earn them worldwide praise, Brazil's federal police carried out raids on some meat processing plants and arrested dozens of federal meat inspectors.
The crackdown, a culmination of the government's two-year investigation into suspected malpractices in Brazil's lucrative meat processing industry, was so massive it included 1,100 federal agents, over 300 court orders and nearly 200 search warrants.
Code-named "Weak Flesh," the investigation claimed to have unmasked a network of corrupt health inspectors and meatpacking plants allegedly involved in passing off rotten and/or adulterated meat as safe and fresh.
About 33 federal meat inspectors are being accused of receiving bribes to ignore safety violations for meat destined for foreign countries. The number could go up, police say, as the investigation continues.
Two of Brazil's top food-processing companies, JBS and BRF, have been linked to the scandal, although both have strongly denied any wrongdoing.
Reactions from foreign governments have been swift and ruthless -- to the utter surprise of the Brazilian government, which probably thought it was doing them a favour by tightening food safety controls in its protein-export industry.
But importing countries, which now include China, Hong Kong, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the EU, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Chile, South Africa, and Singapore, can't be blamed for quickly ordering a total ban on Brazilian meat products.
The alleged food-safety infractions are serious, if not alarming. They include the use of "carcinogenic" substances – such as sorbic acide -- to mask rotten meat.
Cases of salmonella contamination in meat being processed for export were also said to have been uncovered, along with instances of mislabeling or the use of new labels for expired products.
In another case reminiscent of China's 2007 cardboard-stuffed pork bun scandal, Brazilian investigators claimed to have intercepted in a wiretap a conversation between BRF employees about chicken being mixed with cardboard.
Over the last two decades, the world has read and heard about Chinese meat scandals, such as the 2013 arrest of 63 people for processing meat of foxes, minks, rats, and other small mammals and passing them off as mutton.
Or the processing of expired chicken and beef, as exposed by a local TV in Shanghai in 2014, for distribution to stores like McDonald's, KFC, and Pizza Hut.
Or even the March 2011 incident when hundreds of Chinese became sick from consuming pork contaminated with clenbuterol, a chemical, which can cause tremors, nausea, and headaches. Until 2002, when it was banned for use in livestock, clenbuterol was being used to make pigs grow faster and leaner.
Surprisingly, the reactions then against China's own meat scandals were not as widespread and damaging.
But barely three days after announcing its crackdown on scalawags in its meat-export industry, Brazil's daily meat export sales plummeted to just US$74,000 from a daily average of US$63 million during the early part of the month.
In fact, the disparity in the world's reactions has not been lost on Brazilian officials, who think importing countries are over-reacting.
In the first place, the discovery of the scandal, the subsequent arrests and the suspension of 21 meat-export companies were government initiatives, not a knee-jerk reaction to a scandal that blew up on its own.
The government, in a statement to the World Trade Organisation mid this week, asserted that safety standards in all its products remain "among the best in the world."
It pointed out that of the 2,300 government meat inspectors, only 33 are being investigated. Out of about 5,000 meatpacking plants operating in the country, only 21 are under investigation. And they have all been banned from exporting their products.
Clearly, the government tries to portray itself as a victim of its own success in dismantling industry cheats - an instance of good intentions blowing up – rather unfairly – in its face.
Brazilian President Michel Temer has in fact touted that the investigation was a sign of how strong the country's protocols are.
But government critics see it another way.
Temer's government by has been unpopular and bungling all the while that, to them, the scandal is just another instance of government mishandling, especially since blunders have been found in the course of its investigation.
The allegation about meat being mixed with cardboard has been found to be a misinterpretation from a phone transcript. BRF clarified that the employee caught in the wiretap "was talking about the product's packaging, not its contents." And the government conceded it to be an error.
In the case of sorbic acid and other substances said to be "carcinogenic" and supposedly found in some products, Brazil's agriculture ministry admits they are in fact common preservatives that are safe if used in regulated quantities.
Temer's critics, including local columnists, are blaming the president and his government for the fiasco, accusing them of jumping the gun and risking jobs in the industry by unintentionally spreading a stereotype that Brazilian meat was spoiled.
And it didn't help that, in an effort to cool concerns from meat-importing countries, Temer treated ambassadors to a dinner of sumptuous (and, obviously, good quality) steaks at a local popular restaurant -- only to be told later that the restaurant was known to serve only imported beef.