SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil's president said Tuesday that a scandal the over sale of expired meat is an "economic embarrassment" and Hong Kong joined several countries in suspending some meat imports from the South American nation.
President Michel Temer sought to downplay the scandal, calling it a "fuss" and noting that only three of the more than 4,000 meatpacking plants in Brazil have been forced to close.
Still, he acknowledged that it has caused "an economic embarrassment for the country" as he spoke to a conference organized by the Council of the Americas.
The European Union, mainland China and Chile have halted some meat imports from Brazil, a major blow to the struggling economy of a country that is among the world's largest exporters of meat.
Brazilian investigators charge that health inspectors were bribed to overlook the sale of expired meats. Police also allege that the appearance and smell of expired meats was improved by using chemicals and cheaper products like water and manioc flour.
Brazil's trade associations for beef, pork and poultry producers warned that the scandal could have a massive effect on employment and the economy because the sector's exports represent 15 percent of total exports.
Beyond that, cattle-raising is an integral part of Brazil's culture, Sunday BBQs are a weekly rite, and country music from the grasslands is popular throughout Brazil.
Gilberto Braga, a finance professor at Ibmec University in Rio de Janeiro, said the news might also feed an image of Brazil as a country where corruption is rampant.
Separate from the meat scandal, police and prosecutors are currently investigating massive corruption at the state oil company that has implicated dozens of executives and politicians.
"First there is an impact on the image and credibility, which affects not only the protein producing sector, and that refers to beef, chicken, but is also a blow to the country's image, as an organized and serious country," said Braga.
"It is a country that has in the last few years lived through matters of corruption involving authorities and state companies, and now the inspection is being suspected (of corruption)."
So far, Brazil's government has barred the exports of meats from 21 plants being investigated, but that has not fully allayed concerns of the countries it exports to. Sales for internal consumption in Brazil are not affected.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong's Center for Food Safety announced that it would temporarily suspend imports of frozen and chilled meat and poultry from Brazil, starting immediately. The center said that it was taking the precaution despite the fact that no inspection in the past three years has ever flagged meat or poultry imports from Brazil.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a statement that it had instituted testing of all Brazilian shipments of raw beef and ready-to-eat products for pathogens and had increased the examination of those imports.
Brazil got a small reprieve on Tuesday, when South Korea decided to lift a ban it had put in place on chicken products from BRF, one of the companies involved in the scandal. It said it will continue to strengthen inspections on Brazilian imports, however.
Despite the about-face, supermarket chains in South Korea were pulling Brazilian chicken products from the shelves Tuesday.
The European Union has temporarily barred the companies involved in the scandal from shipping to the EU, while Chile announced a temporary suspension of Brazilian meat imports.
On Friday, police issued 38 arrest warrants related to the probe, naming several companies including giant meatpackers JBS and BRF. Both have denied wrongdoing.