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US Freezes Brazil Meat Imports over Safety Concerns | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Meat products are in a cold storage room at a supermarket in Rio de Janeiro during a March inspection by the state’s consumer protection agency. (AFP)

The United States announced on Thursday that it was suspending all beef imports from Brazil over safety concerns.

The decision by US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue came three months after a major scandal into allegations of bribed meat inspectors shook Brazil’s meat industry and prompted several countries to temporarily halt imports.

In a statement, Perdue said that since March, US inspectors have refused entry to 11 percent of Brazilian fresh beef products, about 1.9 million pounds.

“That figure is substantially higher than the rejection rate of one percent of shipments from the rest of the world,” the statement said.

It said the suspension will remain in place until Brazil’s agricultural ministry takes corrective action. The statement did not detail what those actions should be.

The statement noted that Brazil had already addressed concerns of American inspectors by prohibiting five facilities from shipping beef to the US, but said that didn’t go far enough.

“Today’s action to suspend all fresh beef shipments from Brazil supersedes the self-suspension,” said the statement.

The office of Brazil’s presidency said late Thursday that it had no comment. JBS, a Brazilian company that is the world’s largest meat packer, declined to comment.

The move to block Brazilian meat is a turnaround for Perdue, who warned in March that Brazil might retaliate if the United States 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.”

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.

China is not expected to follow the US move as it only permits imports of frozen Brazilian beef, which has different requirements to fresh meat, said analysts.

Brazil is also China’s top beef supplier, and would be difficult to replace in the short-term, said Pan Chenjun, senior animal protein analyst at Rabobank.

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

Brazil was the world’s largest producer of beef and veal in 2016 and one of the top exporters, according to US Agriculture Department. The country is also a major exporter of chicken and pork products.

The US is not a major importer of Brazilian beef, since it produces a considerable amount for internal consumption and export, but the decision will create fresh scrutiny on Brazil’s meat industry and is sure to be closely watched by European and Asian nations that are major customers.