BRASILIA, March 29 (Reuters) - Brazil needs independent controls over its meat industry, a top EU health official said on Wednesday, as he wrapped up a visit to the country rocked by an anticorruption investigation centering on bribery of its food-sanitation inspectors.
Brazil’s Federal Police say in court documents the bribes were paid to cover up serious health violations by some companies in the meat industry, including the sale of rotten and salmonella-contaminated products.
The police probe, dubbed “Operation Weak Flesh,” has caused some of Brazil’s biggest export markets to ban its meats.
The European Union is among the markets that have curbed imports from Brazil, which is the world’s largest beef and poultry exporter.
European Union Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis signaled resistance to easing the restrictions anytime soon.
“This scandal shows how important it is to restore the trust, reliability and predictability of control systems,” Andriukaitis told a news conference.
“We need to have an independent official control system. We need to have transparency,” he said.
Brazil’s federal food inspectors report to the agriculture ministry and the system has come under fire for having politically appointed supervisors.
Andriukaitis told reporters the EU, which suspended imports from the 21 meat processing plants that are under investigation last week, could take additional measures next Tuesday.
He declined to be more specific, but said the bloc will be dispatching a team of auditors to Brazil to visit several meatpacking plants. The team will report back to EU officials in Brussels after Easter, he added.
Police have accused more than 100 people, mostly inspectors, of taking bribes in exchange for allowing the sale of rancid meat products, falsifying export documents or failing to inspect meatpacking plants at all.
Prosecutors have yet to present charges and the police allegations have not been proven.
Government officials have sought to downplay the impact of the probe. But an industry group said on Tuesday that beef exports alone fell over 40 percent in terms of both volume and revenue in March 20-26 from the prior week, as a number of countries imposed temporary bans.
The long-running investigation into irregularities in Brazil’s meat industry, one of the few robust sectors in an economy locked in its worst recession on record, was made public on March 17.
Hong Kong on Tuesday removed one of the last blanket bans on Brazilian meat imports after it said it was satisfied by explanations from Brazilian officials. That followed China’s removal of its restrictions last weekend. Together, the two Asian nations bought about one-third of Brazil’s $14 billion in meat exports last year.
The EU, which suspended imports from the 21 meat processing plants that are under investigation last week, ranks as the No. 2 importer of Brazilian meats, just behind Hong Kong and before China.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle