Brazilian meat inspectors skewer health violators

by Sebastian Smith

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - The team of health inspectors strode into the Rio supermarket Friday and before long had two trolleys filled to the brim -- except they weren't shopping.

"That will all be destroyed," a member of the team said.

Since federal investigators stunned Brazil -- and its worldwide trade partners -- a week ago by announcing they were investigating meatpackers for selling rotten produce with faked certificates, health police have been on the warpath.

Rio de Janeiro's municipal inspectors are not part of the federal "Weak Flesh" probe into dodgy industrial meat plants, but handle the retail side.

Normally, they conduct unannounced raids three days a week, looking at all products. Since the scandal broke, they've been making inspections every day, focusing on meat.

The seven agents in blue vests at a Mega Market outlet in central Rio needed only minutes to start finding problems.

First visiting the walk-in meat locker, where two dozen sides of beef hung on big hooks, they swarmed around taking pictures and notes.

A tense-looking supermarket manager discreetly kicked a loose piece of raw meat on the floor into a corner.

At the market's meat counter, the inspectors pounced.

"It's all dirty here," said one, who like all the agents on the team did not want to be named or photographed.

"There's a dead fly over there," said another.

"The counter is too stuffed with meat," said another.

An agent poked a thermometer in all directions.

"There are still hairs on the skin of that pork," he said.

At the squad's command, supermarket employees began pulling large chunks of beef and pork from the glassed-in counter, all to be destroyed.

Over in the freezer section for packaged fish and meat, things got worse. The freezer was not freezing and agents impounded at least a hundred packages, dumping them into supermarket trolleys for disposal.

- 'Scary' -

An employee in the meat department said that business was down 30 percent since the police probe was announced.

"There'd usually be a line from here to there," he said, indicating an area where just a handful of people waited.

Shopping with her two children, nurse's assistant Maria Rocha said she was nervous.

"When I saw all the health inspectors here, I thought, 'oh no,'" said Rocha, 42. "We used to eat more red meat but since we saw the news, we're eating more chicken, which is safer."

Behind her, the inspectors were still scouring the aisles. One of them lifted a packet of breaded chicken fillet.

It was meant to be frozen but the agent demonstratively bent it backward and forward, then tossed it into the trolley.

Marco Aurelio Mello, 48, a shopkeeper, eyed a freezer full of meat and called the situation "scary."

"You have to have confidence in the food. If you can't buy it here, where can you buy it?" he asked.

Like many Brazilians, he was shocked at the hammering being taken by the nation's powerful meat industry, with import bans or restrictions imposed by China, Hong Kong and numerous other countries.

"Naturally, people want quality, so it really needs to be checked out to see if these stories are true or if the news is invented to discredit our country," Mello said.

But he wasn't letting the crisis get him too down.

"On Saturday, I'm doing a barbecue to celebrate the birthday of my grandson," he said.