The murky process of licensing the Amazon’s meatpackers

Meatpackers in the Amazon are eyeing the Chinese market, but getting certified to export is often the result of intense pressure and neglect of environmental requirements
<p>A slaughterhouse in Mato Grosso state, Brazil (image: Alamy)</p>

A slaughterhouse in Mato Grosso state, Brazil (image: Alamy)

Politicians and meatpackers in Brazil’s Amazonian state of Pará gathered for a celebration in September 2019, cheering the official announcement that four processing plants in the state had won approval to export to mainland China. Photos show delighted participants posing with boxes of meat products.

“The ability to enter the Chinese market is something that meat processing plants in our state have been requesting since 2011,” said governor Helder Barbalho who had lobbied hard for the licences.

Decades of growth in cattle ranching have meant Pará is now the state with the largest herd nationwide. At 20.6 million heads, it has 2.5 cattle for every human inhabitant. At the same time, the region has also broken records for deforestation, sharpening the focus on its contribution to climate change.

Rampant destruction

The Amazon region suffered a fire season in August 2019 that shocked the world. And the destruction has continued into 2020. Barbalho explained the fires were “burning the forest to make pasture”. In the last twelve months, Pará lost almost 3,000 square kilometres of forest, an area almost the size of Beijing, becoming the state that has destroyed most rainforest in Brazil during this period.

Environmental devastation was not mentioned in publicly disclosed documents about recent agreements between Brazil and China on beef, as political and economic pressures dominated the negotiations. The lengthy certification process for meat processing plants focuses almost exclusively on sanitary standards, as can be seen from the applications forms, hearings, and protocols analysed by Diálogo Chino for this article.


of the 22 Brazilian meat plants approved to export to China since 2019 are in the Amazon

Since 2019, China has approved 22 new beef processing plants, 14 located in the Amazon region. The Amazon biome now is home to almost half of the Brazilian meat processing plants authorised to export to China

Environmentalists are alarmed by the sector’s rapid growth: “Clear criteria for controlling deforestation and respecting the land rights of indigenous peoples and communities should be mandatory for exports of Brazilian beef, particularly when it comes from biomes [that are] under attack,” says Adriana Charoux, spokesperson for Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign.

For Pará’s vast beef farming sector, however, the China licences were doubly welcome following past freezes in the trade because of food safety scandals. In 2017, an exposé caught food inspectors conspiring to approve meat that was unfit for consumption. International embargoes followed, and China temporarily halted new export accreditations for Brazilian meat processors.

Meatpackers seek Mainland market

Meat exporters must follow tougher rules to sell to China’s mainland market than to enter Hong Kong, and the mainland is now becoming Brazil’s main market.

Hong Kong has imported Brazilian beef for two decades, although demand is limited and concentrated on cheaper products, according to Thiago Bernardino, a livestock researcher at the Brazilian Centre for Advanced Studies in Applied Economics.

However, demand from Mainland China is rising, largely due to the impact of African swine fever and trade tensions with the US. Gaining market access through China’s central administration allows sales to all provinces, not just Hong Kong, and sales are often of better meat with higher added value.

“The Chinese market is increasingly looking for quality and paying extra for it,” says Bernadino.

The pathway to meatpackers’ export permits

To sell meat abroad or nationwide, Brazilian meat processors must be registered with the Federal Inspection Service (SIF). However, SIF’s requirements for its environmental operating licence are limited to waste and water management and noise and traffic nuisance near the plant.

Meat processing plants are subject to ongoing inspections, but these do not monitor licence renewals or the status of embargos issued by environmental protection agencies for deforestation.

Once the meat processor has its SIF registration number (used in all future inspections), it needs approval from the purchasing country and an international health certificate.

Hong Kong’s market access rules broadly follow exporting countries’ protocols, meaning Brazilian meatpackers can respond to direct requests for export without mediation by Brazil’s federal government. Hong Kong’s requirements, set out in an official letter from the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture (MAPA), are only that meat must be fit for consumption, without contaminants or prohibited substances, subject to inspections and originate from registered farms.

Mainland China’s rules are much tougher. Authorities audit plants in exporting countries, and may also receive a list of recommended companies for local governments to assess.

The credibility of Brazil’s SIF inspectors was cut to shreds when the Operation Weak Flesh investigation caught officials passing unfit meat, prompting China to freeze export permits.

China’s central administration now requires meatpackers and the Brazilian government to comply with rigorous standards covering a plant’s production capacity and sanitary conditions. In a registration form, China requires details of veterinarians responsible for inspection, potential sources of pollution in the vicinity, risk of cross-contamination inside the factory, the cleanliness of the premises and facilities during storage and transportation, and water treatment.

Besides ensuring quality standards, entrepreneurs must have the capacity to meet growing demand: “China is a giant in terms of consumption, and they need volume,” says Jean Manfredini, Brazil’s agricultural attaché in Beijing.

As Philip Fearnside, an authority on the subject, points out, “This represents a danger that deforestation in the Amazon may increase”. 

Aerial view of a fire in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, in Porto Velho, Rondônia state, Brazil
Fire in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, in Porto Velho, Rondônia state, one month after a presidential decree forbidding fires in the Amazon and Pantanal (Image: Christian Braga / Greenpeace)

Uncontrolled production chains

Demand for high volumes of beef have stoked the cattle ranchers’ interest in the Amazon, a geographic shift that originally began in the late 1990s and early 2000s in response to foot and mouth outbreaks elsewhere in Brazil.

The Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture responded to the crisis by tightening regulations and hiring more inspectors.

However, contact-tracing rules could provide a way to protect the Amazon if environmental concerns were prioritized. In granting permits to meat exporters, both Hong Kong and mainland China require a brief description of where the cattle have come from in order to ensure sanitary quality from the point of origin.

If this mechanism were strengthened, it could stop purchases from areas where there is illegal deforestation.


square kilometres of forest were deforested in the state of Pará in the six months up to June 2020

“Big meatpackers are already moving towards that,” said Bernardino, the livestock researcher, pointing to recent promises by Marfrig and JBS to trace their entire supply chains. But, on the subject of adding further environmental protocols, he said, “there would have to be demand on meatpackers from the consumer, retail side for this information and then pressure to change the system.”

Today, the Brazilian government monitors the movement of animals through compulsory transport documentation, while the meat industry monitors suppliers through satellite data and audits.

One of the main obstacles to better traceability is “cattle laundering”, where thousands of ranches act as middlemen, providing cattle not to the meat processors but to other, reputable farms. The practice is common and cattle may spend up to 75% of their lives in the pastures of indirect suppliers who may be involved in illegal deforestation and land grabs

The EU imposes stricter requirements on livestock tracing, which are summarized in a MAPA directive guiding inspectors: it stipulates that the monitoring process should start when animals are first transported and received and track their meat all the way through to the final, export-ready product. The EU has excluded Pará and other Amazon states from the list of exporting regions.

Nonetheless, a study published in the journal Science revealed that at least 17% of beef exports to the EU from threatened biomes may be linked to illegal deforestation.

Political and economic pressure

China’s authorities have shown themselves willing to exert pressure on Brazil within their current framework’s purely sanitary rules on safe provenance. Meanwhile, in Brazil tight links between politicians and Amazon cattle ranchers have sidelined environmental protection.

Bilateral talks to resume Brazilian beef exports to China after Operation Weak Flesh began in 2018 when Chinese inspectors delivered a harsh judgement after visiting only 11 of dozens of meat processing plants recommended by the Brazilian government. 

[Their] report was not very favourable, excluding one [plant] and was full of questions about the other 10,” said agriculture minister Tereza Cristina da Costa Dias at a public hearing. Costa Dias scheduled a trip to Asia in 2019 in an attempt to rectify Brazil’s image.

Meanwhile, Pará’s meat industry readied itself to fight for exports to China. Governor Barbalho visited Brazil’s capital more than 10 times and took ranchers to lobby MAPA on behalf of Pará’s meatpackers. State-level problems over environmental licensing and improved livestock monitoring were resolved, although measures still fall short of what would be necessary to sever the industry’s connections to illegal deforestation.

If China says, ‘I want an environmental protocol’, you will have to have one

The agriculture ministry received petitions demanding transparency about China’s requirements from two federal deputies, Fausto Pinato, chairman of the Federal Commission on Agriculture (PP), and Cristiano Vale (PL), a rancher from Pará,

Three major companies dominate the industry: JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva. In terms of export volume, JBS accounted for more than 30% of meat shipped to Hong Kong in 2017.

Many smaller meatpackers were also keen to become listed exporters. But the government’s frustration at their unwillingness to meet China’s standards can be seen in a video of a closed-door meeting in April 2019, where Cristina warned they would be left behind if they didn’t do more.

Close ties

Pará’s politicians have strong links to agribusiness. Governor Barbalho and his father, former senator Jader Barbalho, are under investigation by Brazil’s Federal Police for receiving supposedly illegal donations from JBS in 2017. Helder was also an agribusiness entrepreneur.

Federal deputy Vale is a rancher who has declared almost R$1 million in assets (US$188,000): R$ 145,000 (US$27,000) in seven farms, including one plot of 250 hectares “without documentation, to be legalised”.

“The environment is certainly a priority,” said his fellow deputy, Pinato. “But we always look for balance, respecting the law, with a very moderate position. In other words, without damaging economic growth of exports.”

Agreement reached

On May 22, 2019, Cristina returned from China with news that the list of approved exporters would soon be finalised.

“I called the entire sector, everybody is at the Ministry of Agriculture, everyone is jetlagged, but the meeting has to be today to see how many plants there will be,” she said. “It is the sector itself that will decide which plants [will be accredited].”

Four months later, 17 accredited beef processing plants were announced, along with six chicken plants, one pork-processor, and one for donkey meat. In October 2019, China and Brazil also signed sanitary protocols to export heat-processed meat products. And in November, another 13 meatpacking plants were certified, five for beef.

Announcing the news in Pará’s state capital, Vale said: “I’m sure there will be even more facilities [accredited], with the potential that the state has to absorb this market.” 

Mainland China has eased inspections of Brazilian plants this year, conducting them by videoconference. Nonetheless, the coronavirus outbreak has paralysed new certifications, and six meatpackers had their exports banned, amid concerns over Covid transmission.

Yet mainland China has quickly become the largest purchaser of beef from Pará: 22,500 tonnes were exported between late 2019 and June from the state’s four accredited plants.

That same month, the state led the rankings for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Some 152,000 square kilometres of forest were lost, an area nearly the size of Tunisia.

For Greenpeace’s Charoux, it is frustrating.

“Although a significant portion of the deforestation is concentrated in the state…we did not see companies taking measures to restrict purchases or even stricter purchase criteria,” she said.

Livestock researcher Bernardino says that for now China is more interested in price than in the environment, but that cattle ranchers are very carefully following its signals.

“If you ask everyone in the market what they’re afraid of right now, [they’ll say they are afraid that] China will halt purchases,” he said. “If China says, ‘I want an environmental protocol’, you will have to have one.”

Leonardo Coelho and Manuela Andreoni contributed reporting to this article