Under the Agridome

Brazil’s Meat Scandal Reverberates Everywhere

Thursday, March 30th, 2017


It seems Canadians are increasingly more concerned about the food they eat.  I say that because you often see a discourse in social media regarding GMO vs. non-GMO, organic versus conventional food, etc, etc, etc.  As farmers we always have more than a passing interest in this. Livestock farmers sometimes face this more acutely, as their product gets to the consumer’s dinner table a little bit quicker.  Needless to say, it is quite a debate.  Ultimately, consumers make the choices.

It made me think this past week when it was revealed that two Brazilian meat producers were under investigation for allegedly doctoring and selling rotten meat onto the market, while some officials turned a blind eye.  This allegation has rocked the Brazilian meat industry as you might imagine.  How do you recover from that?

With such a devastating allegation coming to light, you can see how the debate about food segmentation might seem a little redundant.  For instance, why argue about organic versus conventional if you cannot trust the food safety system that is set up.  In Brazil the damage has been done, Brazilian beef futures have plummeted and an industry staggers under the load of corruption.  Where do they go from here?

The scandal involved an investigation from Brazil’s national police force into meat producer’s practices and some government officials.  Two of the largest meat companies in Brazil BRF and JBS have been accused of injecting chemicals into pork and chicken as well as mixing expired meat with healthy meat and assorted other transgressions.  Brazilian police have actually issued 38 arrest warrants and they have closed 21 meatpacking facilities for further inspection.  Some meat inspectors are accused of looking the other way.   Of course their is a lot of space to be filled in with regard to the story.  Many countries have simply shut their door to many Brazilian meat products.

Canada has responded to this by suspending the import of meat from these two Brazilian companies.  Many other countries have also banned imports from those companies but also the 20 other plants under investigation in Brazil.  China has done the same thing.  The hit is huge and will be reverberating in the southern hemisphere for quite some time.

Of course this is agriculture and one person’s misfortune is often another person’s benefit. There will be increased scrutiny of Brazilian meat almost everywhere around the world.  Just tonight, I had one person on Twitter asked me where he was going to get his Brazilian corned beef?  I didn’t have an answer for him, but the greater picture is a loss of trust for the Brazilian meat industry.  Will others, like livestock producers in Canada and the United States benefit from these Brazilian transgressions?  We shall see.

It brings up the aspect of food safety once again.  You will remember a couple weeks ago in Canada a CBC report on the quality of Subway’s use of chicken in their sandwiches brought on a lawsuit.  Of course now we have this Brazilian meat scandal.  What it makes me want to do is go out and buy some Ontario corn fed beef.  I have great confidence that that product is high quality produced by many of my friends.  However, the world is so much bigger than my friends and that’s why we need a food safety system that everybody can trust.

It’s not that we have not had issues in this country.  Many of you will remember when mad cow disease showed up in Canadian herds.  It took years for Canada to get over that.  It also took a somewhat rejigging of protocol with regard to cattle to make it better.  Our food safety system became even more focused in an attempt to keep consumers safe.  That focus remains in 2017.  The Brazil meat scandal is only one example of something we want to avoid in Canada.

There is no trade-off for food safety.  However, the over riding focus in any food system in the Western world is to produce cheap safe food, with the word “cheap” being sacrosanct.  That always wins even in a food market, which is increasingly segmented to garner greater profits.  Go to any urban food store and you can see that.  Glossy packages and fancy processing garners so much more profit.  Of course the challenge is to do all that and keep the food safe to eat as well.

I have visited countries where there is little semblance of a food safety system.  The food is either good or it will make you sick.  In Canada and most western countries food safety is quite good.  However, the Brazilian meat debacle of the last week should remind us that nothing can be taken for granted.  As further reverberations take place, we’ll see if the scandal spreads.