(Adds potential trade deal context, first-quarter earnings, company plans)
SAO PAULO, May 14 (Reuters) - Brazil is “closer than it had ever been” to exporting fresh beef to the United States, the chief executive of Brazilian meat packer JBS SA said on Thursday, adding that he expects shipments to start later this year.
The Brazilian agriculture ministry expects a formal announcement on meat exports to the United States when President Dilma Rousseff visits Washington next month.
But even if the accord is concluded it would not be a “transformational event” for Brazil’s beef industry, said JBS chief executive Wesley Batista, who heads the world’s largest meat seller.
“Without any doubt this would benefit the flow of volumes from Brazil but today markets are global. It’s not like in the past,” he said.
Little impact would be felt until next year because of likely delays in protocols and approval needed for individual plants, added Batista.
Brazil already exports canned beef and other cooked beef to the United States. The anticipated deal would cover fresh beef, such as meat exported in refrigerated containers.
Batista spoke on a conference call to discuss JBS’s record first-quarter earnings, which surged nearly 20-fold from a year ago to a 1.39 billion reais ($457 million), up from 70 million reais in the first quarter of 2014.
Currency hedging helped reverse net financial expenses of 869 million reais a year earlier.
“We had an impact from exchange rate variation and captured revenue from derivatives that cover this exposure,” Batista said. More than 80 percent of the JBS sales are in dollars.
Profit margins improved in all the regions where JBS operates, including the United States and Australia, but it faced a “challenging quarter” in South American unit JBS Mercosul, Batista said. High cattle prices in Brazil pressured margins and exports also fell, he added.
JBS grew from a family-run butcher in Brazil’s interior to become the country’s largest private company by revenue. Now, it is seeking to become a global processed foods giant as well.
After years of aggressive acquisitions, the company plans to focus on consolidation after finalizing the acquisition of Australia’s Grupo Primo Smallgoods for $1.125 billion this year.
“We will continue to focus on improving our debt profile and our corporate ratings in 2015,” Batista said. “We want to expand our client base in Brazil and abroad.” (Reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)