After a rush of (bad) publicity in the wake of Brazil’s meat inspection scandal, most countries resumed imports of the country’s beef — until now, as USDA halts all Brazilian meat exports.

It didn’t take long for newly confirmed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to make big news. Turns out there’s more than one Cabinet member in the administration capable of turning the media spotlight on himself.

Late last week, Perdue announced an immediate suspension of all imported of beef products from Brazil, due to safety concerns following widespread allegations of bribery of Brazilian meat inspectors to allegedly overlook safety issues in a number of the country’s beef plants. The central issue was the allegation that inspectors on the take inspectors were allowing “expired” and possibly contaminated meat to enter commercial channels as safe, inspected product.

According an Associated Press report, Perdue stated that since March, USDA inspectors have refused entry some 1.9 million pounds of Brazilian beef.

“That [11%] figure is substantially higher than the rejection rate of 1% of shipments from the rest of the world,” his statement noted.

The import suspension will continue indefinitely, until Brazil's agricultural ministry “takes corrective action,” according to the statement, although the exact nature of the corrective actions was not detailed. Five Brazilian plants where inspectors have been caught up in the scandal have been prohibited from exporting beef to the United States, but that move apparently didn’t go far enough.

As was explained in the statement, “Today’s action to suspend all fresh beef shipments from Brazil supersedes the self-suspension.”

One scandal among many

This is a serious development, and not just because Brazil is by some accounts the world’s largest producer of beef and veal, and not just because most other countries — notably China — had only temporarily stopped buying Brazilian meats, resuming imports again after a couple weeks upon assurances that Brazilian authorities had taken steps to deal with the inspection problems.

Brazil is a nation that takes great pride in its beef industry, which by the way, happens to be a major source of foreign currency, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in export product every week.

That has virtually dried up in the wake of the inspection scandal, according to AP reporting, and even though the United States is actually not one of the major importers of Brazilian beef, USDA’s decision to suspend imports will likely trigger further scrutiny among Asian and European countries who do depend upon Brazil as a major source of their national beef supply.

Ironically, USDA’s suspension was announced even as Brazilian President Michel Temer was visiting Russia and Norway on a mission to expand Brazilian meat exports, among other export goods. It has been widely reported that Temer is facing allegations of corruption and calls for his resignation.

Some observes have characterized this entire incident as a non-problem. The United States isn’t dependent on Brazilian imports, and thus the scandal is their problem, not ours.

But consider for one moment the impact that a similar set of allegations would have in this country. If even a handful of USDA inspectors were facing legitimate accusations that they had taken bribes to allow possibly tainted meat products to be sold in the marketplace, it would place the entire American meat industry to virtually grind to a halt, no pun intended.

The cable news networks would latch onto the story like a pit bull on a poodle — well, at least for a couple news cycles. The administration would be bombarded with accusations that they perpetrated a horrible health crisis on the meat-eating public. Consumer groups would go berserk with calls for tougher regulations, greater oversight and severe punishment for any and all parties involved in the allegations.

And of course, our friends in the animal rights movement would be joyously resuming their once-and-future accusations that animal foods are dangerous, unhealthy and likely to kill anyone who consumes meat, poultry or seafood.            

Regardless of the extent of Brazil’s inspection scandal, whether or not there were significant amounts of contaminated product entering the global marketplace, the integrity of government oversight and inspection is the only — repeat — the only firewall that prevents unscrupulous operators from cutting corners and allowing less-than-healthy products to be sold to their customers.

We all want to believe that the professions to which we’ve dedicated out careers are largely populated by people of integrity, businesspersons who would never knowingly put consumers at risk, and that’s largely true.

But there’s this nagging little variable that never seems to go away. It’s called human nature, and the lure of making a buck by looking the other way when substandard product is available for sale is simply too great a temptation for each and every operator to resist.

No one loves inspectors, nor the often-Byzantine regulations with which they’re charged with enforcing.

But with Brazil as Exhibit A, the alternative, I would submit, is way, way worse.  

 

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator