RIO DE JANEIRO • Brazilians are used to scandal and allegations of corruption, but the latest headline- grabbing police investigation has the country entering new realms that are both stomach-turning and slightly surreal.
The federal authorities announced last Friday that they are investigating evidence that companies including JBS SA and BRF SA, the nation's largest meat producers, bribed officials to approve the sale and export of contaminated meat. Federal police served hundreds of court orders, including more than 30 detention warrants, in what local media says is the largest police operation in Brazil's history.
It is alleged that some of the meat, including sausages and cold cuts, was adulterated with ingredients including pig heads, and that suspect smells were masked by applying acid. Police released transcripts of recorded conversations showing how agricultural inspectors were bribed, sometimes in the form of prime cuts of beef. Those who refused to comply, it is alleged, were reassigned elsewhere by the meat companies.
"It seems like magic realism," Mr Marcos Josegrei da Silva, the judge overseeing the so-called Weak Flesh investigation, said in a court order. "Unfortunately, it is not."
Last Saturday the police detained Roney Nogueira, a government relations executive with BRF, for questioning because he allegedly discussed bribing health inspectors, including one who helped prevent the closure of a plant in the state of Goias, according to court documents.
Some of the tainted meat was sold for school meals or to retail chains including Wal-Mart, according to police and Brazil's Federal Revenue agency. Some was exported - police allege three BRF cargoes tainted with salmonella are still en route to Europe. Wal-Mart said in a statement that it has requested explanations from the suppliers cited by the police, and that its internal procedures on food safety are reliable.
Brazil's Agriculture Ministry said that while the scandal revealed isolated cases, it may more broadly harm the country's global trade reputation. Mr Eumar Novacki, a secretary at the ministry, told journalists in Brasilia that repercussions from the case were a concern, as some importers may question Brazil's overall food security system. The country is the world's largest beef and chicken exporter, accounting for almost a fifth of global exports.
"I think long and hard before buying meat now," Police Chief Mauricio Moscardi said in a press conference in Curitiba. "All 40 companies we investigated had issues."
Still, the Agriculture Ministry said that the country's federal meat inspection service is considered to be one of the world's most efficient and rigorous.