BRASILIA, March 19 (Reuters) - President Michel Temer, confronting a corruption scandal tarnishing Brazil’s lucrative meat industry, met on Sunday with executives and foreign diplomats to assuage health concerns tarnishing a sector responsible for $12 billion in annual exports.
The hastily called meetings, following raids by police on Friday investigating whether companies paid bribes to conceal unsanitary conditions at meatpackers, come as Temer works to protect one of the few vibrant sectors in Latin America’s biggest economy, hit by two years of recession.
Addressing concerns by officials from Europe and other big importers, Temer hopes to portray the raids as isolated, if necessary, efforts against corruption and dispel fears they reveal systemic flaws in a sector that is now the world’s largest exporter of beef and several other meat products.
Despite allegations by police that some producers had sold rotten and adulterated meat products, Luis Eduardo Rangel, a senior Agriculture Ministry official at the meetings, said: “There is no sanitary risk.”
The allegations, he added, were “worrisome from a corruption and crime point of view,” but “from a health perspective we are very confident that the sanitary issues alleged do not represent a risk for consumers or exports.”
Diplomats from Europe, the United States, China and other export markets attended Sunday’s meeting. “You cannot play around with food,” said André Regli, Switzerland’s ambassador to Brazil, adding the problems were “worrying.”
On Saturday, officials from the European Union said they sent two letters to Brazil’s government seeking details about any systemic risks to imports. Brazilian officials told the European Union’s ambassador to the country they would address the concerns on Sunday.
On Friday, regulators from the United States, which recently began importing fresh beef from Brazil, said they were monitoring the issue but that inspections at import terminals there should prevent any health risks.
In damage-control efforts of their own, Brazil’s two biggest meat companies launched a public relations campaign over the weekend to make clear they did not sell rotten beef.
JBS SA, the world’s largest meat producer, and rival BRF SA, took out full-page ads in Brazilian newspapers and magazines on Saturday defending their business practices and internal controls. They condemned any wrongdoing uncovered by the probe. (Additional reporting by Paulo Prada; Editing by Peter Cooney)