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Brazil meatpackers' shares tumble, as scandal provokes trade curbs

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Shares in Brazilian meatpackers tumbled anew after China, a key importer, joined countries placing restrictions on the South American country's $12bn meat exports, in the wake of a corruption scandal involving food safety inspectors.

Shares in sector leader JBS touched R$9.64 in early deals in Sao Paulo, a drop of 10.0% on the day, and taking to 20% their losses since Brazilian police on Friday raided the company, and a number of rivals, in a probe into alleged bribery of officials charged with investigating meat processing facilities.

Shares in rival Marfrig dropped 5.9% to R$5.72, taking their two-session losses to 7.9%, while stock in BRF dropped 11.8% to a four-year low of R$32.72, taking their two-session slump to 18.2%.

Minerva shares touched an eight-month low of R$48.77, down 13.1% on the day, and by 14.9% since news of the scandal broke.

Import curbs

The falls came as a series of countries introduced curbs on Brazilian meat imports after police, in a two-year probe called "Operation Weak Flesh", raided meat processing plants to investigate claims that officials had taken bribes to overlook the processing of rotten meat, even with salmonella traces, besides clearing shipments with false documentation.

Brazilian beef exports, by country, 2016 and (year-on-year change)

Hong Kong: 181,709 tonnes, (+9.5%)

Egypt: 168,441 tonnes, (-7.1%)

Mainland China: 164,774 tonnes, (+69%)

Russia: 130,623 tonnes, (-23%)

EU: 106,348 tonnes, (-2.6%)

Iran: 96,170 tonnes, (-1.7%)

Total (includes others): 1.183m tonnes, (-0.3%)

Source: USDA

South Korea – which looked to Brazil for 80% of its 107,400 tonnes of chicken imports last year – said it would bar sales of chicken products from BRF, the top provider, while tightening restrictions on purchases from the South American country.

The European Commission said it would monitor meat imports from Brazil, adding that it "will ensure that any of the establishments implicated in the fraud are suspended from exporting to the EU".

Other countries placing curbs on Brazilian meat exports include Chile, which has placed a ban on beef shipments.

Government 'confidence'

The scandal has been seen as a major setback to Brazil, which has spent decades building up its meat industry into a world leader, with JBS overtaking US-based Tyson Foods to top rank among global meatpackers.

Brazilian broiler exports, by country, 2016 and (year-on-year change)

Saudi Arabia: 746,286 tonnes, (-5.4%)

Mainland China: 483,769 tonnes, (+58%)

Japan: 397,062 tonnes, (-5.6%)

UAE: 301,952 tonnes, (-0.6%)

Hong Kong: 248,565 tonnes, (+4.9%)

South Africa: 221,866 tonnes, (-2.4%)

EU: 219,098 tonnes, (-4.3%)

Total (includes others): 4.126m tonnes, (+2.0%)

Source: USDA

JBS and BRF took out advertisements in Brazilian newspapers over the weekend to defend their practices, and condemn the alleged corruption, which Mr Temer said was seeing "only" 33 inspectors investigated, out of a total of 11,000.

'Stuff of PR nightmares'

However, at Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Tobin Gorey said that the "reports of rotten and chemically adulterated meat being sold in domestic and export markets is the stuff of PR nightmares.

"The scandal could cause large and lasting reputational damage to the world's largest beef and poultry exporter," which had only last year regained access in beef to the US market, after 17 years of negotiations.

Brazil's "$12bn meat export industry is clearly now plunged into a period of uncertainty".

How long?

Indeed, one major question mark over how long import restrictions introduced by the likes of China last, with analysts at Bradesco BBI, in a note saying that BRF could lose 15% of its ebitda to the scandal, flagging the potential for curbs of up to six months.

"We expect the restriction will be limited to inventory liquidation from local traders and other local suppliers, which takes usually 3-6 months," the bank said.

US-based Steiner Consulting that it "could be that the Chinese decision is short lived and as Chinese officials learn more about the situation they may opt to resume trade again.

"However, if the scandal in Brazil deeps and reveals wider cracks in its food inspection regime, China may opt for a longer lasting policy."

Uruguay, Australia to pick up trade?

Countries likely to gain from the curbs include Uruguay, the second-ranked exporter to China last year, with a 27% share, and Australia, which was responsible for 19% of shipments.

In chicken, China relied on Brazil for 86% of imports last year, with Argentina responsible for 9% and Chile and Poland other major origins, although, as stated above, rumours of China suspending purchases of the meat from Brazil remain unconfirmed.

By Mike Verdin

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