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HALIFAX, N.S. /Troy Media/ â€“Â Brazil, the largest exporter of meat products in the world, faces aÂ food fraud crisisÂ â€“ and it seems federal authorities have been complicit. There’s a lesson here for Canada.
BrazilÂ authorities recently announced they would investigate several companies, including meat-packing giants JBS SA and BRF SA. The companies are accused of bribing licensed inspectors to approve rotten meat products for international sale and export.
Given that theÂ companies andÂ government are allegedly involved, this couldÂ become one of the worse food fraud scandals in modern times.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Weak Flesh, began more thanÂ two years ago and still isnâ€™tÂ finished. More than 40 companies and several bureaucrats are involved.
This is a textbook case of economically-motivated food adulteration. Various animal parts were allegedly used as substitutes for more expensive ingredients or products. Any suspicious smells were allegedly camouflaged through the use of acid, a food safety nightmare. It appears these products were delivered to schools, hospitals and other institutions. Even Walmart is a buyer and has requested an explanation about the risks involved.
As we often see in food fraud cases, every company involved is denying all allegations.
Brazilian meat product exports account for well over C$14 billion and are distributed to many parts of the world, including Asia and Europe. That could declineÂ significantly. Share values for JBS SA and BRF SA have decreased by 10Â per cent over the past few days.
Given the political and economic climate in Brazil, this couldnâ€™t have happened at a worse time. The economy is mired inÂ one of the deepest depressions in its history, and the country isÂ dealing with the aftermath of the high-profile Petrobras scandal, which also involved theÂ public and private sectors.
This new scandal will hit agri-food, one of Brazilâ€™s largest economic sectors, very hard.
It alsoÂ strikes yet another blow to the global livestock industry. It gives more ammunition to those opposed to the industrialization of agriculture and the role of agribusinesses. Questions about theÂ sustainable and ethical nature of massive livestock production have abounded for years. As a result,Â consumers in the industrialized world are increasingly reducing their intake of animal protein, particularly beef.
Nonetheless, agri-food firmsÂ exist to make food systems more efficient and food more affordable.Â Society has benefited from these corporations, whether we realize or not.
For that beneficial relationship to endure, ethics must play a key part. Even if most companies operate by upholding shared values with consumers, there are those thatÂ spoil it for everyone else.
That’s obviously shameful.
Public policy exists to protect consumersÂ but ill-designed regulations can lead to market failures, compounding the fallout. In Brazil, licensed companies have a direct influence over who inspects their facilities. Inspectors are only human and can be compromised.
Had a proper regulatory framework been in place, this scandal couldÂ likely have been prevented.
Ironically, JBSÂ SA, as JSB Food Canada, runsÂ the Brooks, Alta., plant that was operated by XL Foods duringÂ the infamous meat recall in 2012. At the time, Canadian inspectors werenâ€™t diligent enough and didnâ€™t askÂ the company to make necessaryÂ changesÂ in areas where they wereÂ found in breach of federal regulations. Maintenance deferral was permitted countless times.
We learned from the XL Foods incident and made changes to how we manage Canada’sÂ inspection force.
Interestingly, JBS bought the Brooks plant duringÂ the recall investigation. This speaks to the culture of the industry, repeated worldwide, and now itâ€™s Brazilâ€™s turn to reap the consequences.
It took Brazil decades to convince the world its meat products were worthy of export. Actor Robert de Niro even wasÂ a spokesperson for the industry. Operation Weak Flesh could destroy this reputation completely. A number of countries haveÂ called for sanctions on Brazilian meat productsÂ and some have already been implemented.
Canada, as one of Brazilâ€™s main livestock industry competitors, will likely gain from all of this. Canadian ranchers are very aware.
But letâ€™s hope arrogance wonâ€™t make our sector complacent again, as we witnessed with the mad cow disease messÂ in 2003. We must learn from that â€“ and from what has happened in Brazil.
CanadianÂ livestock and meat scandals were a cakewalk compared to what’s going on in Brazil. But with food fraud, which is oftenÂ complicated, youÂ can never be too careful.
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