SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian beef exporting group Abiec has kept its 2017 export projections unchanged at 1.5 million tons despite a sharp drop in March shipments caused by a federal police probe into alleged corruption and bribes targeting food-sanitation inspectors.
In an interview on Tuesday, Abiec President Antonio Camardelli acknowledged that exports 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 on Brazilian beef.
He said shipments were expected to pick up in April, however, after Brazil's successful campaign to lift bans imposed in many of the country's main export markets.
Camaradelli's remarks came after Hong Kong said on Tuesday that it was narrowing a ban on Brazilian meat imports to 21 plants directly targeted in the investigation.
Together with China, which lifted its own ban on Saturday, Hong Kong imported almost one third of the nearly $14 billion worth of beef, pork and poultry that Brazil shipped abroad last year, according to government data.
Police have accused more than 100 people, mostly inspectors, of taking bribes in exchange for allowing the sale of rancid 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.
Meat industry officials have sought to downplay the impact of the probe, known as "Operation Weak Flesh," saying it had pointed to only isolated cases of wrongdoing in a sector that is robust and safe overall.
Brazilian beef exports are expected to grow by 7 percent in 2017, generating $6 billion of export revenue, according to Abiec's latest estimate.
While leaving its volume and export revenue forecasts for the year unchanged, Camardelli said Abiec regretted the negative publicity brought on by the police probe.
He added that it had hampered talks to open up new markets for Brazilian beef including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Reporting by Roberto Samora; Writing by Ana Mano; Editing by Leslie Adler and Tom Brown