BRAZIL’S ‘Weak Flesh’ food safety crisis has reignited this week, with news services yesterday reporting arrests of former senior executives of one of the country’s largest meat processors.
Reuters reported that Brazilian police arrested the former chief executive of food processor BRF SA (known as Brazil Foods) on Monday, on charges that he and other BRA executives knew the company, the world’s largest poultry exporter, engaged in fraud to evade food safety checks. The investigations, totalling 91 court orders across the country, also probed laboratories accused of covering up salmonella detections in chicken.
According to Brazil’s Department of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply, four BRF industrial plants were under investigation, two of which are chicken, as well as a feed mill. It was not made clear what species the other two plants processed. Five laboratories were involved in the investigations – three accredited and run by the ministry and two privately-run companies. The investigation found falsification of results, omitting the existence of salmonella in some samples.
Shares in BRF plunged 19 percent on the Sao Paulo stock exchange as the arrests compounded concerns about BRF’s leadership, following an A$400 million loss last year. The loss, the company’s worst ever, was partly due to fallout from the ongoing Brazilian police investigation known as ‘Operation Weak Flesh’ into alleged bribery of food-safety inspectors at BRF and other food processing plants across the country.
As part of the ‘Weak Flesh’ probe last year (click here to view earlier story), police accused scores of people, mostly inspectors, of taking bribes in exchange for allowing the sale of out-of-date meat products, falsifying export documents or failing to inspect meatpacking plants at all.
The scandal prompted several export markets to temporarily close their doors to Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of beef as well as chicken.
In a statement on Monday, Brazilian police cited evidence that five laboratories accredited by the Agriculture Ministry colluded with the analysis department of BRF to falsify test results related to the safety of its industrial process.
“The fraud had the intention to cheat inspection services so as to prevent the Agriculture Ministry from controlling the quality of the industrial process of the company under investigation,” police said.
In a court ruling authorising the arrests, the judge said two former BRF executives sought to cover up claims of possible food contamination, as shown in certain laboratory tests.
A federal police investigator said company personnel at all hierarchical levels had knowledge of efforts to dodge food inspections and safety checks.
BRF will front its shareholders on April 26.
Brazil’s Agriculture Ministry said in a statement that any meat processing plants targeted in the latest BRF probe would be temporarily barred from exports.
In a statement, agriculture, livestock and food supply minister Blairo Maggi attempted to reassure the public, saying the ministry had been working with the Federal Police and the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, and assuring the Brazilian population that there was no risk of consuming poultry meat produced by any of the companies mentioned.
Russia recently banned certain meat imports from Brazil, over food safety inspection concerns. The US is yet to re-admit Brazilian beef after suspending exports last year over similar concerns.