Brazil says meat exports back in business post-scandal

Damian WROCLAVSKY
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Hong Kong, the biggest market for Brazilian beef, issued a ban on all meat imports from the country last week

Brazil sought to swallow the last of the scandal surrounding its tainted meat exports Tuesday as top beef buyer Hong Kong resumed imports -- the final major market to lift its ban, the government said.

Instead of a blanket ban, Hong Kong will now only block imports from 21 companies being investigated for passing off expired meat as fresh, the Brazilian government said in a statement.

The recession-hit South American nation, the world's top beef and poultry exporter, welcomed the news as a victory.

"With this measure, all the big markets for our meat exports are open again for (imports destined for) human consumption," the government said.

- Big on beef -

Brazil was rocked by investigators' accusations on March 17 that the 21 meat processing companies used chemicals to hide the smell of rotting meat and bribed health inspectors to pass off their products as safe.

About 20 countries last week fully or partially closed their doors to Brazilian meat imports.

After the bans, Brazil's average daily meat exports plunged 19 percent in a week, or $11.7 million, according to the trade ministry.

Meat exports brought in more than $13 billion to the Brazilian economy in 2016. The industry employs six million people.

Three major importers -- China, Egypt and Chile -- had lifted their restrictions as of Saturday, opening up to imports from Brazilian producers except for the 21 plants under investigation.

Hong Kong is the biggest importer of Brazilian beef, with more than $718 million in imports in 2016, according to the Brazilian trade ministry.

- Ministers to meet -

The European Union has also barred imports from the plants in question.

The EU's health and food safety commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, met with Brazilian Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi on Tuesday.

"There are many, many problems to be discussed," Andriukaitis told reporters after the meeting.

He said he hoped Brazilian officials would "do everything possible to restore confidence."

The two officials are due to give a joint press conference Wednesday.

- Damaged image -

Maggi said on Monday that the EU commissioner's visit, scheduled before the meat scandal broke, was an important chance for Brazil to offer "clarifications."

"Our image was very heavily attacked in recent days. The comments overseas were very bad," he said.

"Our competitors... are taking advantage of this moment of fragility to win clients and market attention."

Officials have been scrambling to contain the damage, both domestically and with trade partners. Police have arrested more than 30 people and three plants have been closed.

President Michel Temer has several times pointed out that only 184 consignments of meat were deemed by importers to be in violation of standards, among the 853,000 consignments exported in 2016.