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European supermarkets say Brazilian beef is off the menu

Cattle in Brazil

A cattle herd in Brazil, where the government has struggled to connect legal supply chains with illegal deforestation. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • A group of European supermarkets said they would stop carrying beef imported from Brazil after a new report by Mighty Earth and Repórter Brasil linked it to deforestation in the Amazon and other critical biospheres.
  • Sainsbury’s in the U.K., Lidl in the Netherlands, and the Dutch retailer Alhold Delhaize were among the companies saying they would move away from stocking Brazilian beef or products manufactured by meatpacking giant JBS.
  • Last year, deforestation in the Amazon spiked to its highest level since 2005, largely due to the policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
  • Campaigners say the Bolsonaro administration’s refusal to crack down on environmental destruction is spurring a commercial backlash in Europe.

A group of supermarket chains that includes Sainsbury’s in the U.K. and Lidl in the Netherlands said this week that they will either reduce or outright halt sales of Brazilian beef in the coming months. The move comes in the wake of an investigation published by the environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth and Repórter Brasil that found major Brazilian meat producers like JBS and Minerva continue to be linked to deforestation in the Amazon and other critical biospheres.

The list of companies saying they will move away from JBS products or Brazilian beef more broadly also includes the Dutch retailer Alhold Delhaize, Euros Carrefour Belgium, and Auchan France. Together, they represent hundreds of billions of dollars in retail food sales every year. Mighty Earth’s European director, Nico Muzi, says he hopes that more will soon follow.

“I think this is a very interesting moment, and now the challenge is to keep the momentum,” he told Mongabay.

The report detailed links between JBS and Minerva slaughterhouses with third-party livestock farms, called “indirect suppliers,” that have been implicated in deforestation and the violation of Indigenous land rights in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, Cerrado savanna, and Pantanal wetlands. The Brazilian beef industry has been sharply criticized by environmental campaigners for years over its failure to effectively regulate its supply chain from birth to slaughter.

Deforestation in the Amazon surged to its highest level since 2006 last year, jumping by 22% over the previous year. Muzi said President Jair Bolsonaro’s refusal to protect the Amazon has made European retailers increasingly wary of stocking beef products from the country.

“That is creating a huge concern for the public and for consumers in Europe, especially in Northern and Western Europe,” he said.

Albert Heijn, the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, said in a statement that it would completely eliminate Brazilian beef from its shelves. Lidl Netherlands took an even more drastic step, promising to phase out beef produced anywhere on the continent.

“Given the risk of deforestation linked to beef with South-American origin, we have decided together with our supplier to look for alternative sourcing. The result is that from January 2022 onwards we will not sell beef with South-American origin in our fixed assortment,” the company said.

Lidl Netherlands is a subsidiary of the Germany company Lidl, which operates nearly 12,000 stores in Europe and the United States.

Ranchers herding cattle inside an Indigenous reserve in Brazil. Image by Rodrigo Baléia courtesy of Greenpeace.

The vast majority of Brazilian beef is consumed domestically, and in 2019 the European Union was only its third-largest export market. But Muzi says growing international recognition of the need to address deforestation as a driver of climate change is putting pressure on the Brazilian beef industry. The decision of European supermarkets to stop stocking their products may signal the backlash is beginning to hit Brazilian meatpackers in their pain point.

“It’s still modest commercial action, and it’s not going to rock their boat yet. But the significance of this is the fact that now they are having commercial repercussions for not acting,” Muzi said.

In a statement emailed to Mongabay, JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacker, denied that any of the farms directly supplying its slaughterhouses were in violation of its internal policies, and said it had blocked 14,000 supplier farms that weren’t in compliance. But it also said tracking indirect suppliers — farms that pass cattle on to other farms that then transact directly with its slaughterhouses — remains challenging.

“We have made extensive investments in a new blockchain-enabled platform to overcome this challenge and achieve a completely illegal deforestation-free supply chain by 2025,” the company wrote.

But Muzi said that while he recognizes the technical challenges involved in tracing indirect suppliers, he’s unconvinced by the argument that Brazilian companies can’t already do more. A complex tracing system called SISBOV already exists, but it is only used to track disease and contamination in cattle, not their impact on the environment.

“It has never been a technological issue, and obviously today with all the advancements in technology from GPS to satellites to the blockchain, I think it’s a problem of political will,” he said.

While some of the larger supermarket retailers implicated in the report, including Germany’s REWE and U.S.-based Stop-and-Shop, have yet to take similar action, Muzi told Mongabay he’s hopeful that may soon change.

“If there are publics in Europe apart from the U.K. that are really aware of Amazon deforestation, it’s France and Germany,” he said. “So I would expect the Germans to wake up and do something.”

Banner image: A herd of cattle in Brazil. Image by Rhett Butler for Mongabay.