BRAZILIAN BEEF has taken another pounding this week, with UK industry representatives insisting it falls well short of domestic standards in terms of quality assurance and traceability.
“The most commonly used beef assurance scheme in Brazil is the Integrated Farm Assurance standard, operated by EUREP-GAP, which is based in Germany,” explains Robert Forster, chief executive of the National Beef Association.
“Although it is well written, and often uses the same words as the UK schemes, it is supermarket and not producer led.”
This means the requirements for Brazilian imports fall well short of the standards set in the UK.
In particular, Brazilian beef farmers only have to achieve 72% compliance with 175 control points in order to secure quality assured status, compared with 100% in the UK, says Mr Forster.
The scheme is also undermined because it does not have a specific animal welfare section. Furthermore, most of its environmental, waste and pollution management sections are covered by non-compulsory recommendations.
“In other words environmental and welfare tick boxes, which are such a powerful element of UK farm assurance and which UK supermarkets insist on, are either almost non-existent or need only be complied with voluntarily – which means they can be safely ignored,” says Mr Forster.
UK supermarkets insist they make additional demands on their Brazillian suppliers, but have yet to reveal exactly what they are, says Mr Forster.
“Until they do, it is impossible for them to claim Brazilian beef has assurance parity with home produced. They should make sure that consumers who buy Brazilian are aware of this.”
Mike Tempest of the Livestock and Meat Commission in Northern Ireland adds that there are grave doubts about the effectiveness of the country’s traceability system (SISBOV).
In particular, he refers to a 2004 report by the EU’s Food and Veterinary Office, which concludes: “The present level of implementation of SISBOV, the lack of proper supervision of movements, combined with numerous incoherencies in the central data base, undermine the reliability of the certification of live animals sent to slaughter.”
The FVO report also points out that some of the checklists in Brazil’s export slaughterhouses are missing specific EU requirements, while staff carrying out official controls are sometimes paid by the slaughterhouse owners and not by the state.
“We don’t know if the beef exported from southern plants has come from animals reared in the foot-and-mouth affected north,” says Mr Tempest.
When it comes to labour standards, Mr Forster accepts that claims of slavery may be exaggerated.
But the Brazilian beef industry makes use of indentured labour, he says. “Workers are provided with basic accomodation, food and pocket money, with the promise of a lump sum at the end, which may or may not metrialise. It may not be slavery, but it’s not a socially happy form of employment.”
He is also adamant that the Brazilians do drop the rainforest to make way for cattle. “This beef may not be the stuff that gets sold to Tesco, but it is used to feed the indigenous population and so helps generate the surplus for the export trade.”
But Brazilian exporters have struck back at what they see as unjustified criticism emanating from competing suppliers in the UK and around the globe.
“I can understand they are not happy because we are expanding quickly and taking market share,” says Otavio Cancado, senior adviser at the Brazilian Association of the Meat Exporters’ Industry (ABIEC).
“Back in 1998 our total beef exports were worth $500m. This year we estimate they will be worth $3bn.”
But that, says Mr Cancado, is because of Brazil’s efficiency, not because of any exploitation of rainforests or workers.
He estimates that it costs just under $1 to produce a kilo of beef in Brazil, compared with $1.20 in New Zealand, $1.30 in Argentina, $1.90 in the USA and over $3 in Europe.
Mr Cancado admits that, with 195m head of cattle, movement recording is something of a challenge.
But Brazil is addressing the issue and is rolling out its own identification and certification system (SISBOV).
Alberto Foncesco, head of the commercial section at the Brazilian embassy in London, insists that with 220m ha (544m acres) of pasture in Brazil, infringement on the rainforest is unnecessary.