The beef industry here paid a huge price for BSE.
Valuable markets built up over many years disappeared overnight, and it was a long, hard ten-year struggle to get back into export markets. This was not the result of poor decisions by farmers or processors. It was a disease that came out of the blue and those affected by CJD paid an awful price for something no-one expected or fully understood.
This contrasts with the situation in Brazil. What has happened there is entirely self-inflicted. But despite short term action by the European Commission it would be a safe bet Brazil will not pay anything like the price we paid for BSE. That might be logical, in that the risk in Brazil can be calculated and eliminated. But it would be entirely wrong if the country, its government and meat processors escaped sanctions for their actions. There has to be a way to make clear that what they did was unacceptable. That can only be something that hits them commercially, and therefore financially.
It is important at this stage to stress that these are still allegations, and the full extent of what happened still has to be established. If figures that have emerged are correct the contaminated consignments are a small percentage of the total. However this does not reflect the resources put in to identifying those behind the scandal. No doubt the EU and others will be demanding a lot more information before deciding what to do. What we do know is that Brazil is the biggest supplier of imported beef to Europe, with much of that coming in via the Netherlands for processing into manufactured products. If contaminated beef came into Europe, it is probably long gone and eaten, but the commercial and political consequences will be around for a lot longer.
The allegations are that government officials responsible for certifying hygiene standards of meat for export were bribed to issue false certificates. This allegedly involved both beef and poultry. There are also reports of contamination with non-approved chemicals in plants, and that meat not fit for human consumption was exported. Four export plants are amongst the 21 identified with problems and 33 government officials have been arrested, in an operation appropriately known as ‘weak flesh’. It is understood that investigations have been going on for up to two years, meaning this was no overnight problem and that those buying Brazilian meat have been duped on quality for a long time.
When things like this happen, the inevitable question is why would an industry worth billions get involved in fraud. We all asked the same at the time of the horse meat scandal here, and it came back then to corners being cut and costs trimmed to offset extreme margin pressure. This prompted the comment as to what people thought they were getting when they bought six burgers for less than a pound. What is even more amazing in Brazil is that some of those involved include the biggest meat processors in the world. Included is JBS, the second biggest global beef processor and owner of Moy Park here. The expectation would have been that businesses of this size, employing tens of thousands of people in many countries, would have had in place control measures to prevent grubby fraud by staff in processing plants. For the failure to have these they will now pay a very heavy price.
Events in Brazil have brought demand for the EU to ban imports of Brazilian beef. Strong as the case may be this looks unlikely. The Commission has already said the trade talks now going on with the Mercosur countries of South America, which include Brazil, will continue. It says the revelations are a separate issue. Its actions have been limited to a temporary ban on meat from the companies named in the allegations. This is to allow time for investigations by EU veterinary officials, but if Brussels secures the assurances it wants about future conduct these are likely to be lifted. The EU food safety commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, will meet Brazilian officials next week to discuss this, but he was already due to be in Brazil. Time will tell whether the Commission has to go further. But the message the farming industry has to get across to the UK government is that tariff free trade deals, without rigorous quality controls, expose consumers to food that is cheap only because it is rotten.