SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil's meat exports effectively collapsed this week, the agricultural minister said Wednesday, as several countries halted imports from the South American country in the wake of a meat inspection scandal.
Brazil is struggling to contain the scandal, in which investigators say that health inspectors were bribed to overlook expired meats and chemicals and that other products were added to meat to improve its appearance and smell. The government has largely tried to downplay the extent of the corruption, while also criticizing the federal police for how they have communicated about it.
The result has been a stampede away from Brazilian exports.
On average in March, Brazil exported more than $60 million worth of meat each day, Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi told a Senate committee Wednesday. That figure was $74,000 on Tuesday, a few days after investigators revealed the probe.
That precipitous fall in exports shows how serious the crisis is and the government should not try to downplay it, said Michael Gordon, CEO of Group Gordon, a corporate and crisis PR firm.
"Even if it is a handful of bad actors, the issue is that those bad actors are tainting the entire culture of meat production in the country," he said. "That's why a systemic response is needed."
The government has suspended exports from the 21 companies under investigation and noted that only a handful of 4,000 plants were involved, but that has not quelled concern abroad.
South Africa was the latest to join the growing list of countries that are instituting partial or total bans on Brazilian meat. The others include the European Union, China, Japan and Mexico.
In a statement Wednesday, its Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said that it would block products from the companies implicated in the probe. Port inspectors will also test every container of meat from Brazil for pathogens such as Salmonella.
Exports of beef, pork and poultry make up 15 percent of Brazil's total exports, and a collapse in the sector would have serious implications for Brazil's economy, which is already in deep recession.
Brazil is also trying to address concerns at home, where Sunday BBQs are a weekly rite. The consumer protection lobby Idec is calling for a general recall and more information about which meat might be affected. So far, Brazil has not instituted a recall, but instead is pulling samples of products from shelves and sending them for testing.
Maggi has assured the public that meat is safe — but also said there would be a recall if any problems were found during the testing.
Sniping between the federal police, who are investigating the corruption, and President Michel Temer's government has not helped matters.
In a joint statement Tuesday, the federal police and the Agricultural Ministry tried to smooth over their differences and reassure the public and importers that the problem was smaller than it appeared.
The investigation has revealed "facts (that) are directly related to errors in the professional conduct of some public servants and do not represent a general malfunctioning of the Brazilian system of hygiene security," the statement read.
Associated Press writer Stuart Graham in Johannesburg contributed to this report.