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.
In the wake of the spreading scandal, Temer took diplomats from Europe, the United States, China and elsewhere to a steakhouse in the capital city of Brasilia, a “churrascaria” that features grilled meat skewers carved tableside to chow down on Brazilian beef. According to reporting from Reuters, the stunt was an attempt to “quell the fears” among executives and foreign diplomats that there are “systemic flaws” in the country’s meat sector that exports some $12 billion worth of products annually.
Temer told Reuters that Brazil’s government “reiterates its confidence in the quality of a national product that has won over consumers and obtained the approval of the most rigorous markets,” noting that the raids targeted only 21 of the nation’s 4,800 meatpacking companies and just 33 of Brazil’s more than 11,000 inspectors.
Luis Eduardo Rangel, a senior Agriculture Ministry official, told Reuters that despite allegations by police that some producers had sold “rotten meat products,” he said, “There is no sanitary risk.”
Let’s hope that’s the case, because otherwise such pronouncements tend to go into the history books as the signature statement that ultimately serves as the epitaph of a bad situation.
Rangel’s assertion would take its place right alongside Agriculture Minister Gummer’s boneheaded “It’s absolutely delicious” comment about ground beef that later proved to be anything but.
Over the weekend, according to news stories, EU officials reportedly sent letters to Brazil’s government seeking more details about (alleged) systemic risks to the country’s meat exports. U.S. regulators said they were “monitoring the issue,” but stated that inspections at import terminals would prevent any health risks to Americans.
Meanwhile, JBS and BRF took out full-page ads in Brazilian newspapers and magazines last week defending their operations and outlining their strict internal controls, while of course condemning “any wrongdoing” that might be uncovered in the investigation.
Let’s hope all that’s true.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.