São Paulo, March 22nd. With their usual fine sense of irony, the Federal Police named their latest operation, launched on Friday 17th, “Carne Fraca” – the Flesh is Weak. The targets were Brazil’s biggest meat companies, all household names, exporters of billions of dollars worth of beef, chicken and meat products to over 150 countries.
The two-year investigation, involving over a thousand agents, began when a whistleblower inside the Ministry of Agriculture revealed that corrupt officials were taking bribes to turn a blind eye to adulterated and unsafe meat. 27 people, including two regional superintendents of the Ministry, were arrested, and 21 meat processing plants were accused of illegal practices.
These practices included repackaging deteriorated meat products with new sell-by dates, injecting water to increase weight, and the use of carcinogenic substances to mask deterioration in products past their sell by dates.
In the words of one commentator “Everything was permitted thanks to the promiscuous relationship between meat packing companies and employees of the Ministry of Agriculture.
“The ‘Bancada Ruralista’ gave the orders at the Ministry. Congressmen named and sacked inspectors … the link between the meat firms and politics is very strong. In 2014 the sector poured almost R$400 million into political campaigns”.
Federal police said the PP (Popular Party) and the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement) were the parties that benefitted most from campaign financing.
Police wiretapping revealed one federal congressman intervening to save a fellow politician’s meat factory from inspection, addressing the chief inspector in Paraná, as “ Big Boss”. Daniel Gonçalves Filho, the inspector, was described by the police as the head of a criminal organisation, while the congressman who intervened is now the Minister of Justice, Osmar Serraglio.
One of Brazil’s largest meat companies, JBS, was the top contributor to his election campaign. It also funded the campaigns of both Dilma Rousseff and Aécio Neves. Whoever won, they were on side.
Trust the companies
One of the causes of the scandal seems to be that most – 19 out of 27 – regional superintendents of the Ministry of Agriculture are political appointments, not technical. The inspectors’ union said there are not enough inspectors. Their numbers have been frozen, while meat production, and therefore the number of places to be inspected, has soared.
From the government’s point of view, the timing of the police operation couldn’t have been worse—on exactly the same day that the first positive economic results were announced, with a rise in jobs, and an improvement in the agency Moody’s ratings.
Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi hurriedly announced inspections, meetings, and investigations as meat importing countries demanded explanations, but he also criticised the federal police operation as theatrical and exaggerated.
Yet it was Maggi himself, who last year reduced health inspections of the food industry, saying:
“We are withdrawing inspections from areas where they are no longer necessary. The government cannot go on hiring hundreds of officials for these bureaucratic positions. We have to trust the companies to do it.”
The government scrambled to minimize the impact, because over the last years Brazil has become the world’s biggest exporter of meat and meat products, employing thousands in almost 5,000 factories and meat packing plants. As country after country suspended imports from Brazil, we learned that Hong Kong imports more meat from Brazil than China, Jamaica eats only Brazilian corned beef and even tiny Chile is the 8th largest customer.
President Temer hurriedly invited ambassadors in Brasilia to dinner at a churrascaria, and was photographed enjoying a succulent steak, only for it to be later revealed that the restaurant buys all its meat from Argentina and Uruguay.
Cleaning the stables
The meat scandal overshadowed what should have been the week’s major story – Attorney General Rodrigo Janot’s bombshell list of the politicians denounced by Odebrecht executives for bribe taking and receiving illegal campaign donations in the Lava Jato corruption scandal.
Supreme Court Judge Luis Fachin now has the job of deciding which of the 83 senators, deputies and governors, from all the major parties, on the list, will be charged.
Not by coincidence, the lower house immediately began discussing urgent political reform, with the introduction of ‘listas fechadas’. This would mean that instead of voting for an individual candidate, voters would vote for a party, and the parties would decide who was on the list. This has been interpreted as an escape clause for all the congressmen on Janot’s list, who would be re-elected, and therefore eligible for the so called ‘foro privilegiado’, or trial by the Supreme Court, where cases take years to be heard, instead of falling into the clutches of the workaholic lower court judge Sergio Moro. It would also mean of course, no clean-out of the openly corrupt lower house of congress.
Pensions under threat
But it is a congress where President Temer can count on easy, almost automatic support, even for his highly controversial reforms to the pensions system. Union leaders are furious: Paulo Pasin, president of the São Paulo Metroworkers union said, “it’s not a bill to reform, but to destroy the pension system”.
The bill proposes raising the retirement age for both men and women to 65. To earn the maximum state pension people would have to pay contributions for 49 years. Those whose income is below a quarter of the minimum wage, in effect the destitute, will only get a pension when, or if, they reach the age of 70.
Although there are so many inequalities in Brazil, everyone will be treated equally. Women, in spite of their dupla jornada, rural workers, in spite of starting work at a much earlier age than urban dwellers, manual workers who are physically exhausted by the time they reach their sixties. The difference in life expectancy between the poorer population in the north and northeast and the relatively wealthier population in the south and southeast will be overlooked.
The justification for this draconian bill is the huge deficit in the pension system, added to demographic changes which mean fewer young and more older people.
Critics suggest that the government should first recover all the unpaid contributions from tax-dodging companies. They also point out that although the economic recession, with 13 million now unemployed, has led to a big fall in contributions, this should be temporary.
Protests against the pensions reform have brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets all over Brazil.
The 2018 presidential campaign has begun
In São Paulo the protest was hijacked by the PT, who used it as a platform for Lula, launching his 2018 presidential campaign. A few days later large crowds turned out to cheer him in Paraiba, at the “popular” inauguration of the R$9 billion ‘transposition of the waters’, begun during Lula’s presidency, and designed to bring water to the drylands of the Northeast. As the region is enduring the worst drought in a century, the sight of water rushing along the new canals was greeted with euphoria, but the project is highly controversial because it will take water from the already much depleted São Francisco river.
At the official inauguration of the hugely overbudget project a week before, Temer was booed by the crowd who shouted ‘Lula lá!’
Whether Lula, indicted under the Lava Jato investigation, will be allowed to run is another question, but definitely, the 2018 presidential campaign has begun.
The PMDB is so enmeshed in scandal that it will probably not field a candidate, and as potential PSDB candidates Aecio Neves, José Serra and Geraldo Alkmim are also all ensnared by Lava Jato, space has suddenly opened up for the energetic São Paulo mayor, João Doria, to bring his managerial methods to the Planalto. There is no doubt that he is keen to do so. If they are not careful, Brazilians may find they have a president who emerges from the Palace early every morning to sweep the ramp.