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Meat of the Matter: Mad Cow 2.0?

As pundits love to say, the optics were not good.

In fact, the recent stunt by Brazilian President Michel Temer in attempting to tamp down a corruption scandal involving his country’s meat inspection system bears a striking resemblance — hopefully with a different outcome — to the mad cow outbreak in Great Britain.

Back in 1990, when bovine spongiform encephalopathy was running rampant among the British dairy herd, then-Agriculture Minister John Gummer famously tried to prove that beef was still safe by staging a news conference at which he pretended to eat a hamburger, and most disturbingly, encouraged his four-year-old daughter to “tuck into” the hamburger she was holding.

As The Express newspaper recounted the scene, “The little girl takes one hesitant nibble then turns away disdainfully. ‘It’s absolutely delicious,’ exclaims her dad, taking a bite, but she’s having no more of it.”

The made-for-TV photo op was widely publicized at the time, not because it swayed the public to set asides its (ultimately legitimate) concerns about tainted beef, but for the opposite reason: Gummer was seen by most people as a guy endangering his vulnerable young daughter for purely political purposes.

In fact, just a few years later, the connection between BSE and human Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was confirmed, and in the decade that followed there were numerous deaths among those who had eaten British beef.

It’s All Good

Cut to President Temer last week. In the wake of a scandal that has swept cross Brazil’s beef industry, in which police raids highlighted an investigation into allegations that some meatpacking companies had sold contaminated, adulterated meat products and paid bribes to government inspectors to cover up unsanitary conditions at their plants.

When the news broke, China suspended imports of all meat products from Brazil, now the world’s top beef exporter, and South Korea, the EU and Chile also followed suit. Shares of JBS SA and poultry processor BRF SA fell after both companies were targeted in “Operation Weak Flesh,” along with dozens of smaller packers.