Are you having beef for dinner? Do you know where it came from? No, not the grocery store down the street, but where the cow was raised? Most of us probably can’t answer those questions, and that’s a growing concern for health advocates, retailers, and lawmakers amid reports that some meatpackers in Brazil — one of the world’s largest exporters of beef — are shipping out rotten, salmonella-tainted beef.
Worries surrounding the safety of beef and poultry coming from Brazil came to a head this week with federal food regulators stepping up inspections, retailers pulling the items, and lawmakers introducing legislation to ban the products.
But why? Here are 5 reasons why you might be hearing more about Brazilian meat than you ever thought possible this week.
1. A Growing Scandal
Reuters reports that concerns over the safety of meat from Brazil — the world’s largest producer of beef — has grown over the last week.
The issue was pushed into the spotlight after authorities accused inspectors at a Brazilian exporter of allowing spoiled or tainted meats to be sold.
In all, police issued 38 arrest warrants on Friday, the Associated Press reports, related to an investigation into two Brazilian meatpacking companies, JBS and BRF.
Investigators claim that health inspectors at the plants were bribed in an attempt to continue the sale of expired meat. The AP reports that police also allege the questionable meat was altered with chemicals such as water and manioc flour to mask the appearance and smell.
2. Banning Products
This week, in the wake of these arrests and allegations, several countries announced temporary bans on imports of Brazilian meat.
The AP reports that the European Union, China, and Chile have all put at least partial restrictions on meat coming from Brazil.
European Union spokesman Enrico Brivio said that it “will guarantee that any of the establishments involved in the fraud will be suspended.”
Later Monday, China Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi announced that the country had suspended imports of Brazilian meats into China’s ports. While the AP reports that Blairo didn’t describe the issue as an embargo, he noted that the containers would not be allowed to leave for local markets.
The AP reports that Chile also announced the temporary suspension of meats from Brazil. Additionally, Reuters reports that Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, Mexico, and Switzerland have also enacted temporary bans on imported Brazilian meat.
3. Pulling Products
What about the beef that’s already been imported? Reuters reports that several retailers around the globe have decided to pull Brazilian meat from their shelves.
Chinese grocery retailer Sun Art Retail, along with the Chinese arms of Walmart and Metro AG, removed Brazilian beef and poultry items from shelves.
A rep for Sun Art Retail tells Reuters that the removed products account for just 10% of its beef supply, while a rep for Metro AG said it had pulled chicken legs and wings from its Chinese stores. Online retailer JD.com also tells Reuters that it removed all listings for imported Brazilian meat.
In Hong Kong, Reuters reports, retailer PARKnSHOP has removed Brazilian pork, beef, and chicken from shelves, and plans to increase the supply of meat and poultry products from other countries.
4. No U.S. Ban — Yet
So far, the U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t announced a temporary ban on Brazilian products, despite calls to do so by lawmakers.
Montana Rep. Jon Tester announced legislation Tuesday that would temporarily ban the importation of Brazilian beef to protect American consumers from consuming rotten meat.
Tester’s legislation calls for a 120-day ban on the products in order to give the USDA time to “comprehensively investigate food safety threats and to determine which Brazilian beef sources put American consumers at risk.”
The U.S. has a complicated history with Brazilian meat producers. The USDA only began allowing the import of Brazilian beef in Aug. 2016 after a 13-year ban.
The agency said at the time that it had worked since 2003 to ensure that Brazil’s regulations aligned with the World Organization for Animal Health’s scientific international animal health guidelines.
In a separate decision in August, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service determined that Brazil’s food safety system governing meat products remains equivalent to that of the United States and that fresh — chilled or frozen — beef can be safely imported from Brazil.
That determination was seemingly thrown into question following the recent bribery scandal.
5. Stepping Up Inspections
On Monday, the USDA announced it would step up inspections of Brazilian meat following accusations the country may have exported tainted beef, Politico reports.
“The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is in contact with USDA embassy officials and Brazil’s ministry about their investigation,” a USDA spokesperson said in a statement. “It is our mission to keep the food supply safe for American families and FSIS has instituted pathogen testing of all shipments of raw beef and ready-to-eat products from Brazil as well as increased the examination of all these products. We will continue to monitor the events as they unfold.”
Under the increased screening, Politico reports, 100% of Brazilian meat imports will be re-inspected.
While the increased inspections could prevent some tainted meat products from making their way to U.S. retailers’ shelves, it does little to address meat products that might already be there, waiting for shoppers to scoop them up.
Retailers could try to pull the products, but that would likely be a complicated process as the U.S. no longer requires mandatory Country of Origin Labeling for beef and pork muscle cuts, ground beef, and ground pork.
The USDA removed the mandatory COOL requirement in late 2015 as an amendment [PDF] to the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2016 in order to bring the U.S. into compliance with intentional trade obligations.
Prior to the amendment, retailers were required to notify their customers of the country of origin of the products.
Now, retailers are no longer required by the rule to provide country of origin information for the beef and pork that they sell, and firms that supply beef and pork to these retailers no longer must provide them with this information. Additionally, firms in the supply chain for beef and pork are also relieved from the requirements associated with mandatory COOL.
Our colleague Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, says the news out of Brazil is alarming, and that the lack of origin labeling leaves American meat buyers in the dark.
“Some consumers might want to choose U.S. meat or another country’s meat, but they have no way of knowing the country of origin,” explains Halloran.
While origin labeling is no longer required, there’s nothing stopping a meat supplier or retailer from being transparent about the source of their beef. Which is why CU is calling on the various companies that are part of the supply chain to provide consumers with this information, and allow them to make an informed decision about the meat they purchase.