BRASILIA - Brazil won a major victory Saturday in the fight to restore credibility amid a tainted meat scandal, with key markets China, Egypt and Chile lifting their bans on its products.
The announcement of the reopening of the Chinese market to Brazilian meat imports did not come from Beijing, but from Brazilian agriculture minister Blairo Maggi who said the decision "attests to the rigor and quality of the Brazilian sanitary system".
Though the minister said China had "fully reopened" its market, he also noted China would maintain import restrictions on meat from 21 Brazilian processing plants under investigation.
President Michel Temer, in a statement, welcomed China's decision as an "acknowledgement of reliability" and expressed his "total confidence" that "other countries will follow the example of China".
Brazil, South America's largest economy and the world's largest meat exporter, has been reeling since March 17 when Brazilian police announced "Operation Weak Flesh." The two-year investigation revealed that some meatpackers had paid crooked inspectors to pass off rotten and adulterated meat as safe.
China quickly suspended all Brazilian meat imports on Monday, and Hong Kong followed suit the next day.
China is the second-largest importer of Brazilian beef, after Hong Kong, with more than US$703 million in imports in 2016. For both meat and poultry, China also was in second place with nearly US$859.5 million in imports.
Two other countries - Egypt and Chile - announced Saturday the resumption of meat imports from Brazil, with exceptions.
"We suspended it (this week) until we found out what happened and now it's back, but we won't import anything from slaughterhouses or factories that have a problem," said Mona Mehrez, a deputy to the agriculture minister in Egypt, the third-largest importer of Brazilian beef, at US$551.2 million.
Chile said it was lifting the ban except on imports of beef, pork and poultry from the 21 plants under investigation.
Chile, the sixth-largest importer of Brazilian meat, at more than $300 million, had suspended all imports Monday, prompting Brazil to threaten retaliatory measures against its Latin American trade partner.
Other markets, including the European Union, Japan and Mexico, have announced bans on imports from the 21 businesses under investigation.
Officials have been scrambling to contain the damage, both domestically and with trade partners. Police have arrested more than 30 people and three plants have been closed.
The scandal has rocked one of the strongest sectors in Brazil's economy, which has been grappling with its worst recession for more than two years.
Brazilian meat is exported to more than 150 countries, with principal markets as far apart as Saudi Arabia, China, Singapore, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands and Italy.
Sales in 2016 reached US$5.9 billion in poultry and US$4.3 billion in beef, according to Brazilian government data.
On Wednesday, the government appealed to the World Trade Organisation's 163 other members not to impose "arbitrary" bans on the country's more than US$13 billion meat export industry.
In its letter to the WTO, Brazil pressed its message that a few bad apples are at fault for the scandal and that the Brazilian food industry itself is in good health.
It pointed out that of 11,000 employees at the agriculture ministry, 2,300 work as inspectors on animal products and "only 33 individuals are being investigated for improper conduct".
The president several times has pointed out that only 184 consignments of meat were deemed by importers to be in violation of standards, among the 853,000 consignments exported in 2016.