U.S. bans fresh Brazil beef imports over safety concerns

Chicago | Reuters — The United States halted imports of fresh Brazilian beef on Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, after a high percentage of shipments failed to pass safety checks.

USDA had “recurring concerns about the safety of the products intended for the American market,” after increasing tests on Brazilian beef in March, according to a statement.

The agency raised scrutiny on Brazilian beef and ready-to-eat products as a precaution following an investigation into corruption involving Brazil’s health inspectors that targeted meat companies JBS SA and BRF SA.

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JBS, the world’s largest meat packer, declined to comment on the U.S. ban.

USDA’s action threatens the reputation of meat from Brazil, the world’s top exporter of beef and poultry, even though the U.S. is not a top customer. It also could boost domestic sales in the United States.

“Product was already on the water and that’s not going to be allowed in,” Altin Kalo, a U.S. livestock analyst at Steiner Consulting Group, said about shipments headed to the U.S. from Brazil via boat.

Since March, USDA has rejected 11 per cent of Brazilian fresh beef products, compared to the rejection rate of one per cent for shipments from the rest of the world, the agency said. The shipments, totaling about 1.9 million lbs., raised concerns about public health, animal health and sanitation, according to USDA.

The agency said none of the rejected lots made it into the U.S. market.

The move to block Brazilian meat is a turnaround for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who warned in March that Brazil might retaliate if the U.S. halted beef imports.

On Thursday, he said in a statement that “although international trade is an important part of what we do at USDA, and Brazil has long been one of our partners, my first priority is to protect American consumers.”

The U.S. suspension will remain in place until Brazil’s agriculture ministry “takes corrective action which the USDA finds satisfactory,” according to the agency.

A slew of global buyers, including China, Egypt and Chile, curtailed imports of Brazilian meat after Brazilian federal police unveiled an investigation into alleged corruption in the sector on March 17.

Brazilian authorities said at the time that meat companies made payments to government health officials to forego inspections and cover up health violations.

The U.S. began allowing shipments of fresh beef from Brazil last year after banning them due to concerns about foot and mouth disease in cattle.

— Tom Polansek reports on agriculture and agribusiness for Reuters from Chicago. Additional reporting by Michael Hirtzer in Chicago and Tatiana Bautzer in Sao Paulo.

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