Amazon rainforest covered by smoke from burning. Fire is used for deforestation and formation of cattle farms.
Photo: Shutterstock

UK military beef supplier linked to illegal deforestation in Brazil

28.04.2020

Beef sourced by Ministry of Defence in Bahrain comes from Frigorifico Sul, a firm that purchased thousands of cattle from ranchers fined R$33.5m (£6m) for environmental breaches

UK armed forces in the Middle East are being served beef from a Brazilian company whose suppliers have illegally cleared more than 8,000 hectares (ha) of land – including swathes of the Amazon and Cerrado biomes, a new Earthsight and Repórter Brasil investigation can reveal.

Through Freedom of Information (FOI) data, analysis of sanctioned cattle ranchers, slaughterhouse purchases, and shipment records, our research shows how the UK government is at risk of fuelling Brazil’s deforestation crisis. 

Beef used by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) in Bahrain is supplied by, among others, Frigorifico Sul Ltda (Frigosul). Founded in 1998, Frigosul is part of the Fuga Couros group – one of Brazil’s largest leather producers. 

Between January 2018 and July 2019, two Frigosul abattoirs, known to supply the military’s Bahrain catering subcontractor, purchased thousands of cattle from farmers fined a combined R$33.5 million (£6 million) by Brazilian authorities. Analysis of fines and embargoes issued by the Brazilian environment agency IBAMA against Frigosul’s cattle suppliers over the years reveals a multitude of malpractices. 

This includes a rancher fined R$501,000 (£108,000) for clearing 100ha of land in the Amazon state of Pará, a farmer responsible for burning 596ha without permission, another who cleared 113ha of Cerrado biome and dozens of other breaches including falsifying documents and land pollution. 

FOI responses from the MoD to Earthsight reveal the military’s catering partner in the Middle East is Overseas Supply Services Limited – a company operated by Kellogg Brown Root (KBR), which signed a $48 million (£36 million) three-year MoD contract in 2017. A local subcontractor, Fine Foods, is named in the FOI response as being used by KBR to supply beef in Bahrain. 

Along with Frigosul, Brazilian meat giant Minerva and Premier Foods in Saudi Arabia were also named by the MoD as companies supplying beef used to feed personnel stationed in Bahrain.

Brazil’s beef sector is under mounting pressure to address both its legal and illegal deforestation footprint. Photo: Shutterstock

The UK opened a permanent military base in the Gulf state in April 2018; its first new naval outpost in the region since 1971. The site houses more than 300 personnel and is described by the MoD as “the hub of the Royal Navy’s operations in the Gulf, Red Sea and Indian Ocean”. The MoD told Earthsight the Bahrain catering contract commenced in April 2018. 

Earthsight analysis of shipment records shows Fine Foods, which claims to be Bahrain’s “largest foodservice supplier”, receiving 664 tonnes of Brazilian beef since 2018. Of this, 17 per cent came from Frigosul and 33 per cent from Minerva. Frigosul sent seven shipments totalling 111 tonnes in 2018 and 2019, customs data shows, while Minerva sent 192 tonnes.

Beef brisket, tenderloin, offal and rump heart were among the goods shipped. Frigosul told Earthsight they did not know the onward destination of the beef it sent to Fine Foods.

Four Frigosul consignments came from its facility in the Várzea Grande municipality of Mato Grosso state and three from its facility in Aparecida do Taboado in Mato Grosso do Sul – the same two slaughterhouses supplied by farmers with IBAMA fines totalling at least R$33.5 million (£6 million).

There is no record of Frigosul having signed a Meat TAC (Conduct Adjustment Terms) in Brazil – a legally-binding agreement signed between federal prosecutors and meatpackers whereby they pledge to not buy cattle reared on embargoed land or linked to environmental or labour breaches.

Frigosul told Earthsight it uses a third-party to monitor suppliers and therefore it is not possible that the firm could purchase from ranches sanctioned by IBAMA: “Frigosul, by conviction and by the principles itself, does not buy cattle from rural properties that are on the embargo list, as the company does not agree with the attitudes of those on the embargo list.”

The response added: “[It is incorrect that] Frigosul purchased cattle, in the period from January 2018 to July 2019, from rural properties fined by IBAMA for environmental violations, because… the company carries out research and inspection, through a third party company (AGROTOOLS), of the rural property when buying cattle for slaughter.”

Frigosul’s website states the firm strives for the “preservation of the environment”, and in a statement to Earthsight said they have the “most rigorous methods of controls, including the origin of the animals to be slaughtered”. Our findings point to a different reality. 

Aerial view of Frigorifico Sul's facility in Varzea Grande, Mato Grosso. Credit: Google Earth

The Várzea Grande slaughterhouse received thousands of cattle from farmers sanctioned for past illegal environmental activities, including a combined 7,999ha of deforestation. Meanwhile, ranchers supplying Frigosul’s Aparecida do Taboado facility during the period had illegally cleared 973ha of land.

In total, suppliers to these facilities have cleared 8,972ha (89sq km); equivalent to 12,500 football pitches and the same size as Denmark’s capital Copenhagen. The period when the fines and embargoes were issued stretches back over two decades.

Our analysis indicates that two-thirds of the R$33.5 million fines owed remained outstanding as of late 2019.

Among the fined ranchers is Marcos Borges de Araujo in Pará. A ranch of his was embargoed for destroying 100ha of “private legal reserve” near the town of Sao Felix do Xingu; an area long blighted by illegal logging. His R$501,000 (£108,000) fine remains unpaid. In August and September 2018, another of his farms sent 256 cows to Frigosul’s Várzea Grande facility.

Elsewhere, a farm in Corumbiara, Rondônia state, provided 1,596 cows to the Várzea Grande slaughterhouse in January 2019 while a fine of R$596,000 (£107,000) issued to the farmer for illegally burning 596ha of land at a second property remained unpaid. The land cleared also remains under embargo.

Frigosul purchased 38 cows for the Aparecida do Taboado facility from Fazenda Nathan between May and July 2019, despite a 47ha embargo being in place at the property since 2013 for preventing the regeneration of illegally cleared Cerrado vegetation.

Fazenda Cafe also sent 26 cows to the facility in late March 2018, days before the MoD’s Bahrain catering contract started, while its rancher was fined R$35,000 (£11,000) for not restoring 71ha of cleared Cerrado biome. 

Antonio Ori Toqueto, another Mato Grosso rancher supplying Frigosul, was fined R$140,000 (£34,000) in August 2017 for illegally logging 27ha of “native forest” in the Amazon region.

The farm linked to Toqueto’s fine and associated embargo, Fazenda Progresso, sent more than 500 animals for fattening and ‘reproduction’ to another of his farms, Fazenda Alvorada, between March 2018 and July 2019, government documents seen by Earthsight and Repórter Brasil reveal. From there he sent 80 cows to Frigosul’s Várzea Grande slaughterhouse in early 2019.

This points to a possible “cattle laundering” scheme within Frigosul’s supply chain.

Cattle laundering, when ranchers move cattle from an embargoed farm to a ‘clean’ farm to sidestep slaughterhouses’ zero-deforestation policies, is a significant problem for Brazil’s meatpackers as many do not have systems to monitor indirect suppliers (farms that sell cattle to other farms that then supply meatpackers).

Brazil’s beef sector is under mounting pressure to address both its legal and illegal deforestation footprint. 

Pasture deforested to enable cattle ranching in Para, Brazil. Photo: Shutterstock

Research published last year by Trase, a project run by NGO Global Canopy and Stockholm Research Institute, estimated that the country’s beef industry is responsible for 5,800sq km of deforestation every year. Meanwhile, a record 89,000 fires were documented in the Amazon in 2019 with many reportedly started to enable large-scale ranching.

In response to the fires, the UK government pledged £10 million to protect the Amazon and in February announced plans to form a coalition of countries to tackle global deforestation and “protect the world’s forests for future generations” as a major plank of its climate change commitment. Despite the aid offer, it was revealed in March that Boris Johnson was ‘thanked’ by Brazil’s government for not supporting further action to block the Mercosur trade deal with Brazil. 

Minerva, another MoD supplier and Brazil’s second largest meatpacker, admitted they do not trace indirect suppliers. 

Although the firm is a TAC signatory and claims it has a zero-deforestation policy, Brazilian non-profit IMAZON said Minerva is at risk of buying from 200,000ha of embargoed Amazon areas, while Trase calculated its exports are linked to farms involved in 100sq km of deforestation risk. 

Minerva told Earthsight that cattle purchases in the Amazon biome are “100 per cent made on monitored farms”. “If any irregularity is identified,” the statement added. “The Company's sustainability department blocks suppliers in non-compliance with any of the criteria, eliminating the possibility of purchasing raw material from such producers.” 

However, the firm also told Earthsight: “[Minerva] does not have effective means of verifying and tracking indirect suppliers”. 

Our investigation has identified a known Minerva supplier in the Amazon state of Rondônia seemingly moving cattle from one embargoed ranch to a ‘clean’ farm in order to evade Minerva’s policy. 

Cross-referencing IBAMA data with official state documents, Earthsight and Repórter Brasil have discovered that Fábio Rocha de Freitas transferred 54 animals from a property where he has a 76ha embargo for illegal deforestation to a second ‘clean’ farm. 

On the same day, 12 December 2018, Rocha sent 54 animals from his ‘clean’ farm to Minerva’s Rondônia facility in Rolim de Moura – a slaughterhouse Earthsight has found to be supplying the MoD’s subcontractor in Bahrain. Documents detailing the transfer of the 54 cattle from his embargoed farm to the ranch supplying Minerva were issued between 10:33am and 10:40am, while documents for the transportation of 54 cattle to the Minerva plant were issued seven minutes later. 

When informed of the case, Minerva said they would investigate and take “appropriate measures” if any irregularity were found. Its statement added that the problem of monitoring indirect suppliers is deep-rooted in the sector: “There is currently no accessible and reliable data and statistics on the complete livestock traceability chain to determine the number of indirect suppliers in Brazil.”

Frigosul and Minerva beef has been used by the Royal Navy in Bahrain since 2018. Credit: Sandy Watt for Earthsight

Minerva sent $478,000 (£364,000) of beef in 2019 to Premier Foods in Saudi Arabia, the third firm named by the MoD as supplying beef to its catering subcontractor in Bahrain.

Shipment data detailing Premier Foods’ Brazilian meat imports also shows 31 per cent of supplies coming from Mataboi Alimentos.

Mataboi is owned by JBJ Agropecuária, a firm run by José Batista Júnior - brother of Wesley and Joesley Batista who own the scandal-hit meatpacking giant JBS. In December Brazilian media reported a police investigation against José Júnior over alleged bribes made by JBJ to slaughterhouse inspectors.

JBS and Marfrig, who along with Minerva make up Brazil’s three biggest beef companies, also sent beef to Premier Foods in the past year.

It is not known if the beef Premier Foods supply to Fine Foods for its MoD catering subcontract comes from these Brazilian exporters.

Earthsight revealed last year how JBS - a firm dogged by multiple bribery scandals and fined £6.5 million in 2017 for buying cattle linked to illegal Amazon deforestation - had until at least 2016 supplied beef for British army ration packs in the UK.

Approached about the origin of beef used by its UK catering partners, the MoD said in a December FOI response: “MoD does not hold records of beef suppliers in the UK as this is a matter for [the MoD’s] contracted catering partners.

“However, under the terms of those contracts all beef (or any other produce) procured must meet EU buying standards.”

It is unknown whether the cattle Frigosul received from previously fined and embargoed ranchers were subsequently sent as beef to Fine Foods for use in the Bahrain MoD contract. Similarly, Earthsight and Repórter Brasil have not determined whether beef received by Fine Foods from its other suppliers came from cattle sold by fined or embargoed ranchers. Fine Foods did not respond to requests for comment.

In response to our findings, an MoD spokesperson said: “We are committed to upholding ethical procurement practices and do not directly contract with either Minerva or Frigorifico Sul Ltda.

“We work with all of our contractors to make sure they meet the strict standards of environmental protection and sustainable procurement. The MOD continually reviews and updates its policies to ensure that sustainability is considered throughout the procurement process and the supply chain.’’

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