The latest meat scandal from Brazil could be a boon for Irish meat producers, as, not for the first time, the reputation of the world's biggest meat exporter has been tarnished. China, South Korea, Chile and the EU have already halted imports of meat from Brazil. Over 30 companies are being investigated in a corruption sting involving allegations of bribery and garish tales of bad practice. These include two of Brazil's largest companies, the world's biggest beef processor JBS SA and food conglomerate, BRF SA.
JBS is the world's largest beef company with worldwide holdings worth $40bn and the capacity to slaughter 90,000 cattle per day. The company has had a few scrapes over the years. These include a recall of 400,000 pounds of US beef products in 2009 due to E. coli contamination and brushes with Greenpeace over allegations of deforestation by some of its beef suppliers in Brazil. Of course, when you have such a scale of operations, it is hard to keep tabs on every little detail. But the latest scandal, in which companies including JBS and fellow food giant BRF are alleged to have bribed officials to approve the sale of adulterated and spoiled meat, is hitting them hard.
As the probe in Brazil widens, the companies involved have been taking out full-page advertisements in newspapers and prime-time television slots to reassure their customers. But share prices are tumbling and the scandal will undo years of expensive publicity using celebrities such as Jamie Oliver and Robert de Niro. More countries are likely to say no to Brazilian beef imports, at least in the short-term. This is tough on Brazilian farmers and ranchers, but it has a silver lining.
The Brazilian meat scandal is good news for Irish meat exporters. Moments like these make all the paperwork and aggravation that go with traceability worthwhile. When the biggest beef processor in the world is taken out of the equation, that leaves a big hole in the market.
This scandal is an opportunity for Ireland to fill the void and expand our range of destination countries. Of course Brazilian producers will be back and in the long term we could never compete with them for scale, but this is a great chance for Ireland to expand its share of affected markets by emphasising the positive attributes our products have.
We can now appeal to a range of new customers who are willing to pay more for quality assurance. If Ireland can use the fall-out from this scandal to its advantage we could potentially find enough foreign markets to keep farmers in business despite the predicted loss of post-Brexit market share in Britain.
Our beef is grass-fed, fully traceable and produced to high standards, so there's nothing holding us back. Or is there?
The biggest worry, as ever, is how much of the new market exposure will come back to farmers in the form of real prices. Because before we get excited about new markets, we need more transparency in the pricing system that currently sees some food product mark-ups of 200% over what farmers are paid. This is where we, as farmers, need to focus our energies.