Three of America’s biggest grocery chains are selling Brazilian beef produced by a controversial meat company which has been linked to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, an investigation by the Bureau has revealed.
Food giants Walmart, Costco and Kroger – which together last year totalled sales worth more than half a trillion dollars – are selling Brazilian beef products imported by JBS, the world’s largest meat company, which has been embroiled in a string of deforestation allegations in recent years.
Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the non-profit data-analysis agency C4ADS established that in recent years the JBS subsidiary Sampco Inc has imported into the US thousands of tonnes of Brazilian beef, destined for grocery chains and other food companies.
The products include shredded and canned (corned) beef as well as frozen meat and steaks. In December researchers identified Sampco-branded shredded beef, produced in a JBS factory in São Paulo, being sold by both Walmart and Costco, and shipping data pinpoints JBS exports of Brazilian corned beef being supplied for sale in Kroger stores.
Between July 2017 and November 2019 Sampco imported more than 5,000 consignments of Brazilian beef products totalling 7,884 tonnes, records obtained by C4ADS show.
Responding to these findings, campaigners called on the grocery chains to take swift action to rid supply chains of any links to deforestation.
“Costco and Walmart claim to care about sustainability, yet continue to sign contracts with JBS,” said Lucia von Reusner, senior campaign director of Mighty Earth.
“Supermarkets need to go beyond their sustainability rhetoric by setting strict requirements for their suppliers banning deforestation, monitoring their suppliers for compliance.”
JBS beef cattle exports have been linked to about 300 sq km of deforestation every year. The company slaughters almost 35,000 cattle a day in Brazil. JBS denies it is responsible for any deforestation.
The Bureau, working with Repórter Brasil and the Guardian, has in recent years exposed concerns over links between the company and deforestation in the Amazon – a key contributor to the growing climate crisis.
Last year a major investigation uncovered how the company’s own trucks transported cattle from a “dirty” ranch fined for deforestation to a supposedly “clean” one that had supplied cattle to JBS abattoirs. The Bureau obtained livestock movement records revealing that thousands of cattle had been trucked on the same route.
Although JBS vehemently disputed the investigation’s conclusions, the revelations appeared to directly contradict the company’s claims that it is unable to monitor the more distant parts of its beef supply chain, and prompted calls for supermarkets and fast food retailers to immediately cease trading with JBS.
Walmart told the Bureau it took these allegations seriously and would review our evidence.
Campaigners said the latest revelations highlight the urgent need for US laws that combat deforestation. To date there has not been any significant proposal in the US for federal legislation outlawing agricultural imports linked to tropical deforestation, unlike in Britain and the European Union, where momentum for new rules has recently gathered pace.
“The US is complicit in driving global deforestation through its sales of beef products from Brazil that entail widespread destruction,” said Sarah Lake, Mighty Earth’s vice-president for Latin America. “The Biden administration has an opportunity to advance legislation to restrict the import of products linked to deforestation, just as the EU, the UK and France are already doing.”
The Democratic senator from Hawaii Brian Schatz recently said he plans to introduce such legislation.
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The draft bill “not only has the potential to protect forests around the world but also to defend US agricultural producers who are being undercut”, Jade Saunders, a senior policy analyst from the NGO Forest Trends, told the Bureau. “This could be a small but critical step towards the Biden administration pulling the US back to the fore of global efforts to tackle the climate crisis.”
A bill has just been introduced to the California state assembly that would require contractors supplying products to the state to ensure they are not linked to deforestation abroad. A similar bill expected in New York state has also been delayed.
Brazilian beef has long been identified as a key driver of deforestation in the Amazon, where swathes of forest are cleared for pasture used for cattle farming. The Amazon is a crucial buffer in stabilising the regional and global climate. Experts say that preserving the world’s rainforests is essential if a climate emergency is to be averted.
Between 1980 and 2005, deforestation levels reached 20,000 sq km per year. International demand for beef is directly driving the problem: about 5,800 sq km of forest — an area four times the size of Greater London — is being felled annually in Brazil to be converted into pasture for cattle farming.
Walmart told the Bureau it believes "healthy forests sustain biodiversity, support livelihoods and play an important role in mitigating climate change. Walmart is working with suppliers on certification, monitoring, supporting sustainable sourcing regions, promoting collaborative action and advocating for effective policy."
A Kroger spokesperson said: “We take deforestation seriously, as demonstrated by our no-deforestation commitment for our brands, and continue to engage our suppliers in pursuit of this commitment and to ensure no deforestation is happening in our relevant supply chains.”
Costco declined to answer questions but pointed the Bureau to its sustainability policies, which state: “Our intent is not to source beef from high-risk deforestation regions until comprehensive traceability and monitoring systems are in place.”
JBS told the Bureau: “The spurious allegation that JBS exports are linked to deforestation is irresponsible and based on flawed, superficial analysis of the correlation between the concentration of deforestation at municipality level and the location of our plants. Correlation is not causation.”
Reporters: Andrew Wasley and Alexandra Heal
Desk editor: James Ball
Investigations editor: Meirion Jones
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Alice Milliken
Header image: A cattle farm ravaged by fire in the Amazon. Credit: Bloomberg/Getty.
Our Food and Farming project is partly funded out of Bureau core funds and partly by the Hollick Family Foundation (for 2020) and The Guardian. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.