JBS meat plants reopen as White House blames Russia over hack

The White House has linked Russia to a cyberattack against global meat processing giant JBS. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (REUTERS, AFP) - JBS SA employees started returning to US meat plants on Wednesday (June 2), a day after the company's beef operations stopped following a ransomware attack, disrupting meat production in North America and Australia.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation on Wednesday attributed the attack to " REvil and Sodinokibi," which experts have said are two names for the same hacking group with ties to Russia, and said it was "working diligently to bring the threat actors to justice."

"We continue to focus our efforts on imposing risk and consequences and holding the responsible cyber actors accountable," the FBI said in a statement.

Brazil's JBS controls about 20 per cent of the slaughtering capacity for US cattle and hogs, so the plants' reopening should prevent a severe supply-chain disruption.

JBS, the world's largest meatpacker, said most operations resumed on Wednesday, "including all of our pork, poultry and prepared foods facilities around the world and the majority of our beef facilities in the US and Australia."

"We anticipate operating at close to full capacity across our global operations tomorrow," JBS USA Chief Executive Andre Nogueira said in a statement.

The cyberattack followed one last month by a group with ties to Russia on Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the United States, which crippled fuel delivery for several days in the US Southeast.

US President Joe Biden said Wednesday he is "looking" at possible retaliation after the White House linked Russia to the cyberattack.

Asked by a reporter if he would take action against President Vladimir Putin, whom he will meet for a summit in Geneva later this month, Biden said: "We're looking closely at that issue."

Asked if Putin is testing him ahead of their summit, Biden said "no."

It is the third major attack this year tied to Russia.

"We're not taking any options off the table in terms of how we may respond, but of course there's an internal policy review process to consider that. We're in direct touch with the Russians, as well, to convey our concerns about these reports," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

"President Biden certainly thinks that President Putin and the Russian government has a role to play in stopping and preventing these attacks."

Cybersecurity investigators have said they believe some members of the REvil ransomware team are based in Russia. The prolific ransomware group, which is perhaps best known for attacking an Apple supplier named Quanta Computer earlier this year, previously posted in Russian on cyber-crime forums, marketing stolen data.

In the Quanta Computer case, the hackers sent extortion threats and demanded a payment of US$50 million (S$66.6 million) for the company to regain access to its systems.

Over the past few years, ransomware has evolved into a pressing national security issue. A number of gangs, many of them Russian speakers, develop the software that encrypts files and then demand payment in cryptocurrency for keys that allow the owners to decipher and use them again.

With North American operations headquartered in Greeley, Colorado, JBS sells beef and pork under the Swift brand, with retailers like Costco Wholesale Corp carrying its pork loins and tenderloins.

US beef and pork prices are already rising as China increases imports, animal feed costs rise and slaughterhouses have confronted a labor shortage since Covid-19 outbreaks shut down many US meat plants.

"It's probably going to be pretty tight for the next few days because even though they (JBS) are going to start opening ... who knows how they are going to run," said Altin Kalo, economist at Steiner Consulting Group. "There's a fair amount of people that are scrambling (for beef supplies)."

US meatpackers on Wednesday slaughtered 12.5 per cent fewer cattle than a week earlier and 8 per cent less than a year earlier, although slaughtering was up about 12 per cent from Tuesday, according to estimates from the US Department of Agriculture.

Plants are expected to return to full capacity in the next couple days, said officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents over 25,000 JBS meatpacking workers.

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