(Adds comment by Agriculture Ministry)
By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA, March 23 (Reuters) - The European Union has asked Brazil to voluntarily suspend all shipments of meat to its member countries to avoid imposing a ban that would take time to lift, but the Brazilian government has not agreed, EU diplomats in Brasilia told Reuters on Thursday.
Brazilian meat exports have in any case ground almost to a halt following a police investigation into corruption involving food-sanitation inspectors and accusations that rotten products were sold.
A spokeswoman said Brazilian Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi was not aware of the request.
The Brazilian government suspended meat shipments from the 21 meat-packing plants under investigation by the federal police, while insisting the quality of Brazilian meat was not in doubt.
But European farm groups called on the EU Commission on Thursday to take stronger action against Brazilian meat imports because of the scandal. EU experts meet in Brussels on Friday to decide on possible further measures.
The EU had already suspended imports from four Brazilian meat-processing facilities earlier this week.
EU ambassadors have been seeking more information on the irregularities discovered in Brazil’s meat industry and have criticized Brazil’s government for failing to deal with the problem as a public health issue, according to a European diplomat who attended a EU meeting on Wednesday.
“We asked the Brazilians to suspend all exports but they refused,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“There is overall disappointment with the way Brazil is treating this as a public relations issue rather than from a public health point of view,” the diplomat said.
Another European diplomatic source confirmed the request that Brazil voluntarily suspend all meat shipments to the EU because a ban would take a long time to undo, whereas meat sales could resume at any time if Brazil held off shipments.
The corruption scandal has hurt Brazil’s reputation as the world’s largest meat exporter, with sales of almost $14 billion last year. The industry employs 4 million workers.
Brazil’s JBS S.A., the world’s biggest meat processor, said on Thursday it suspended beef production at 33 of its 36 plants in Brazil for three days because of the lack of sales.
A dozen countries, including Brazil’s largest trading partner, China, have suspended imports of Brazilian meat as a precaution, and eight others have stopped imports from the plants under investigation.
Brazil exported beef, chicken, pork and other meat products worth $1.76 billion to EU members in 2017, and a similar amount to China, where some of the largest Chinese food suppliers have pulled Brazilian beef and poultry from shelves.
Brazilian President Michel Temer said he would call his Chinese counterpart to urge China to review its import ban.
Maggi said on Wednesday that Brazilian meat exports sank to $74,000 on Tuesday from a daily average of $63 million. He told a congressional hearing the scandal could cost the meatpackers $1.5 billion or 10 percent of annual meat exports.
He said on Thursday the police announcement of the corruption probe was exaggerated and wrongly suggested meat quality was being investigated instead of the individuals who violated sanitary rules.
Still, European farm groups Copa and Cogeca said corruption cases were unacceptable.
Brazil’s failure to apply EU-equivalent food safety standards raises “serious concerns” about ongoing trade talks between the EU and South American trade bloc Mercosur that Brazil is part of, they said in a letter to the EU Commission. (Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney)