BRASILIA: Brazil tried to reassure the world Sunday that its huge meat industry poses no threat - with President Michel Temer even inviting ambassadors to a steak dinner - despite allegations that corrupt exporters sold tainted products.
Temer smiled as he invited diplomats to a traditional Brazilian meat restaurant called a churrascaria, saying "if you accept the invitation we will be very happy". Nineteen of the 33 envoys who met with him accepted the offer.
But Temer had the serious mission of calming a scandal threatening the reputation of the world's biggest beef and poultry exporting nation.
Brazilian President Michel Temer (C), Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi (L) and Industry and External Commerce Minister Marco Pereira (R), holds an emergency meeting with meat-packing representatives. (EVARISTO SA/AFP)
The scare started Friday when police said a two-year probe had found major meat producers bribed health inspectors 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.
General view of Brazilian food company BRF's plant, under investigations for meat adulteration in Chapeco, Santa Catarina state, Brazil. (NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP)
Brazilian meat is exported to more than 150 countries, with principal markets as far apart as Saudi Arabia, China, Singapore, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands and Italy. Sales in 2016 reached US$5.9 billion in poultry and US$4.3 billion in beef, according to Brazilian government data.
In his address to the ambassadors, Temer acknowledged that the scandal had generated "major concern". But he insisted that the bad meat and faked certificates occurred in only "a very few businesses" and did not represent a wider problem.
Calling Brazil's inspection system "one of the most respected" in the world, Temer said: "I want to reiterate our confidence in the quality of our products."
In 2016, 853,000 consignments of animal products were exported, Temer said, yet "just 184 of them were deemed by importers to be in violation".
Earlier, Luis Eduardo Pacifici Rangel, secretary of agricultural protection, told reporters that there was "no risk for population, neither for exports."
Meat processor BRF also 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.
There have been no reports of people made sick as a result of the alleged practices. However, Brazil is worried the scandal will hurt 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. He urged that any response to the crisis be "proportionate".
"I hope that this is not used to unjustifiably close markets," he said.
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.
A report by news agency AFP earlier said that major meat producer JBS was also under investigation.
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 company also issued a media statement pointing out that none of its facilities has been shut down and that no action has been taken against JBS or its employees.
"We have complete confidence in our approach to food safety and product quality in Brazil, and in all of our operations around the world," a spokesperson for the company said.
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.