Brazilian giant meatpackers targeted in corruption probe

Two big Brazilian meatpackers bribed inspectors to keep rotten meat on the market, police charged Friday in issuing dozens of arrest warrants, while a judge accused the Agriculture Ministry of betraying the country.

Part of the money allegedly paid by meatpackers JBS and BRF was channeled to two major political parties, including the one of President Michel Temer, police said.

Brazil is one of the biggest meat producers in the world and has been counting heavily on agribusiness to recover from its worst recession in decades.

Investigator Mauricio Moscardi Grillo said at a news conference that the two meatpackers used chemicals to improve the appearance and smell of expired meats. He said at least one executive reported that rotten meat was mixed with healthy meat to be sold to consumers.

Cheaper products like water and manioc flour were also blended with meat sold by the two companies, Grillo said.

Police said the meatpackers had direct influence in Brazil's Agriculture Ministry so they could pick the inspectors who would visit their plants. Those inspectors would produce sanitary certificates regardless of the adulteration of the products, police said.

In his decision to authorize arrests, Judge Marcos Josegrei da Silva said the Agriculture Ministry has a "staggering" involvement in fraud and corruption. "The ministry was taken hostage by a group of individuals that repeatedly betrayed their obligation of serving society," Silva wrote.

Grillo said some of the expired meat was exported to Europe. He said four containers of BRF meat contaminated with salmonella were stopped in Italy in 2016, but nothing was done against the company.

JBS issued a statement saying it complies with regulations. BRF had no immediate comment, while the Agriculture Ministry indicated it would issue a statement later.

Shares of both JBS and BRF fell more than 7 percent on the Sao Paulo stock exchange after the news broke.

Grillo said some of the bribes paid to inspectors were channeled to two political parties — Temer's centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and the right-leaning Progressive Party, which is part of the president's governing coalition.

Investigators said federal Justice Minister Osmar Serraglio had been taped in a conversation with one of the leaders of the alleged bribery scheme in his home state of Parana in southern Brazil in which Serraglio calls an investigated inspector "big boss."

Brazil's federal police said that was not enough evidence to open an investigation of Serraglio, who oversees the force.