Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy

The Brazilian Beef Scandal and the Future of US Grass Fed Beef

Worldwide, we're seeing strong growth in organics and grass fed farming. As of 2016, the organic food sector accounted for 5.3 percent of total food sales in the U.S.1 We now also have a brand-new grass fed certification by the American Grassfed Association (AGA), which is the highest certification you can get for dairy, beef, sheep and goats.

In short, we're seeing a radically increased demand for healthier foods. A lot more people now know about the drawbacks of factory farmed beef and dairy, and are aware that when herbivores are grazed naturally, without hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, you end up with a healthier product.

Unfortunately, the current food system still leaves a lot to be desired. Built around efficiency and profit, inevitable quality and safety deficiencies are par the course. International trade agreements also protect profits over safety and consumer ideals.

While traceability is key for food safety, country of origin labeling (COOL) was rejected by the World Trade Organization (WTO) for being "discriminatory." In other words, you're not allowed to know where a food comes from simply because that might influence you to buy or not buy, depending on your preferences.

The ramifications are presently evident in the beef industry, where tainted beef is being exported around the globe while local ranchers struggle to compete with bottom-priced imports.

US Suspends Brazilian Beef Imports

On June 22, 2017, the U.S. suspended imports of fresh beef from Brazil,2 the fifth largest beef exporter to the U.S. For the past two years, Brazil's Federal Police have conducted an investigation into the country's beef industry. According to investigators, Brazilian food inspectors accepted bribes, falsified sanitary permits and allowed expired meats to be sold.

Nearly 1,900 politicians also received bribes to the tune of $186 million over the course of a few years, including former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. Dozens of federal food inspectors have now been placed under arrest, and J&F Investimentos, the holding company of JBS SA, one of Brazil's largest meatpackers and a prime suspect in the corruption investigation, has agreed to pay $3.2 billion in fines.3

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), since March, 100 percent of Brazilian meat imports have been inspected before being allowed into the country. Normally, 1 percent of meat imports are turned away. In the case of Brazil, 11 percent were refused, equating to about 1.9 million pounds of beef.4

Among the problems discovered during inspection were abscesses in the meat — a problem Brazilian deputy agriculture minister Eumar Novacki claims is due to rare adverse reactions in some cattle to vaccines that prevent foot-and-mouth disease; reactions that pose no risk to public health.5 Not everyone's buying this excuse, though. As reported by Reuters:6

"The Agricultural Ministry's linkage of the abscesses to vaccines was questioned by some experts. Vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease are the No. 1 vaccines used in animals worldwide, said James Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University …

Roth said 'any injection into an animal might rarely produce an abscess' if the needle is dirty. However, '[I]f abscesses are showing up in the meat, there has to be a failure in the slaughter plant because those should be caught and removed' …"

EU Struggles With Tainted Meat and Animal Feed

The European Union (EU), which has also stepped up inspections of Brazilian beef, reports rejecting shipments due to the presence of E. coli. The Brazilian health inspectors' union, Nacional dos Auditores Fiscais Federais Agropecuários (ANFFA), blames the systemic failures on staffing cutbacks.

While the number of meatpacking plants have doubled since 2002, the number of health inspectors has declined from 3,200 to 2,600 in that same time.7 Meanwhile, in March, the Brazilian government announced it will cut the Agriculture Ministry's budget by another 45 percent. But E.coli-tainted meat from Brazil is not the only trouble found in the EU. Chinese-made riboflavin (vitamin B-2) supplements for use in animal feed have also been found to contain genetically engineered (GE) bacteria, which is illegal in the EU.

Making matters worse, the GE bacteria in question confers resistance to a number of different antibiotics, including chloramphenicol, used for infections such as meningitis, plague, cholera and typhoid fever.8 The tainted supplements first came to light in 2014. As reported by Independent Science News:9

"[R]iboflavin is now frequently produced by commercial fermentation using overproducing strains of GE bacteria. According to EU biosafety regulations, no GMO bacterial strain, nor any DNA, is allowed to be present in commercial supplements. However, the contaminated sample of riboflavin contained viable strains of the genetically modified organism Bacillus subtilis.

The researchers cultured and tested the contaminating bacterium and subsequent DNA sequencing showed it to be a production strain. Further testing showed it to contain genomic DNA conferring resistance to the antibiotic chloramphenicol. In addition, the strain contained DNA extrachromosomal plasmids with other antibiotic resistance genes. These conferred resistance to the antibiotics ampicillin, kanamycin, bleomycin, tetracycline and erythromycin.

Correspondence between German diplomats, Chinese authorities and the company subsequently established that these antibiotic resistance genes constituted key differences between the strains the company claimed to be using … Only the erythromycin and chloramphenicol resistance genes were acknowledged by the producer. Whether the altered strains had been used intentionally or were inadvertent contaminants is still not clear."

Get Local

Find News and Action for your state: