The Amazon cut: How beef linked to deforestation is exported to Europe by major companies
In part two of the “Bruno and Dom Project,” Forbidden Stories continues to pursue the work of journalist Dom Phillips and land defender Bruno Pereira on the Amazon rainforest. One of the planet’s greatest protections against climate change, the rainforest is being eaten away by the meat industry. In the last six years, the equivalent of 800 million trees have been razed near slaughterhouses that export worldwide, according to new data accessed by the consortium.
With André Campos (Repórter Brasil), Andrew Wasley, Elisângela Mendonça, Robert Soutar (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism), Jeroen Wester, Karlijn Kuijpers (NRC), Carina Huppertz, Dajana Kollig, Julius Bretzel (Paper Trail Media), Eduardo Goulart (OCCRP)
In 2021, Brazilian news outlet Repórter Brasil revealed that three multinational companies, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva had all been buying cattle from deforested areas.
Their report “seems to have been the final straw,” journalist Dom Phillips tweeted at the time.
More on ban by UK and EU supermarkets on Brazilian beef over deforestation. It was this in-depth report by @reporterb that seems to have been the final straw, showing JBS, Marfrig and Minerva all bought cattle from deforested areas.https://t.co/rHtahj7LSV
— Dom Phillips (@domphillips) December 16, 2021
These three companies are large players on the international market for beef—responsible for about 70 percent of Brazil’s exports. Along with Danone and Heineken, JBS is one of the 15 largest food companies globally, according to Forbes’ annual ranking. In 2022 alone, the multinational slaughtered an average of 75,000 cattle per day, supplying raw meat to customers in over 190 countries. Marfrig and Minerva operate at about half this capacity, but are still two of the largest companies in the beef industry, from slaughter to sale.
Beef is by far the greatest contributing factor to deforestation in the Amazon. The tropical rainforest, which is the size of Europe, is home to more than a tenth of the world’s species. The Amazon is also a carbon sink, absorbing more CO2 than it emits and playing a critical role in limiting greenhouse gases and fighting against climate change.
Brazil’s beef industry captured Phillips’ attention. The Guardian correspondent, who moved to Brazil in 2007, wrote several of his final articles on this industry before he and Bruno Pereira, an indigenous peoples’ expert, were murdered on a reporting trip one year ago.
JBS has committed to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. In a 2021 article for The Guardian, Phillips noted that “much of net-zero target could be met if JBS ended deforestation by Amazon suppliers.” In a previous story, Phillips wrote that the rising demand for beef from China was “fueling environmental crisis in Amazon.”
For part two of the “Bruno and Dom Project,” which continues the work of the murdered journalist and land defender, Forbidden Stories is revealing how these three Brazilian multinational beef companies have continued do anything and everything—including potentially sourcing from ranches responsible for deforestation—to meet the rising international demand for beef.
In the cattle industry, following the supply chain can be challenging. Beef companies need livestock supplied from ranches near their slaughterhouses. Today, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva have an obligation to ensure that their direct suppliers are not involved in illegal deforestation, but before arriving at a slaughterhouse, livestock usually pass through two to three farms, sometimes more.
“Farms that feed, raise, fatten and deliver animals to the slaughterhouses are becoming fewer and fewer,” Tiago Reis, a researcher at Trase, an initiative by the NGO Global Canopy and the Stockholm Environment Institute to establish greater supply chain transparency, told Forbidden Stories.
As in some shady financial dealings, certain cattle ranchers use the complex structure of the market to mask the origins of their product—essentially laundering their livestock. These ranchers move their animals from a “dirty” farm, linked to deforestation, to a “clean” farm, with no history of fines or sanctions, before sending them to a slaughterhouse.
In 2020, Phillips uncovered one of these operations and exposed the links between multinational JBS and a rancher who had been sanctioned for illegal deforestation. He published the investigation in an article for the Guardian in partnership with Repórter Brasil and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).
The new investigation released today, coordinated by Forbidden Stories in partnership with these two organizations, as well as Dutch daily NRC and German start-up investigative media Paper Trail Media (PTM), finds that the particular rancher implicated in Phillips’ investigation, Ronaldo Rodrigues Da Cunha, has continued these destructive practices. But he has a new international client: Marfrig, one of the three multinationals that Phillips previously investigated.
A family affair
In a May 2020 program aimed at promoting Brazilian farming on the Canal Rural television channel, one clip shows cows as far as the eye can see.
“In our family, we come into the world with one foot on the ground and one eye on the farm,” Rodrigues Da Cunha, a guest on the show, says.
The story of the four generations of cattle ranchers in the Rodrigues Da Cunha family is also the story of Brazil’s relationship with the Amazon. Originally from southeastern Brazil, Rodrigues Da Cunha was in his early twenties when he joined his father in the Amazon, where he had bought a farm in Mato Grosso state, according to his website. It was the 1970s, during the military dictatorship and at a time when the Amazon was still seen as land to conquer. People could buy land for hardly anything.
The forest was destined to be the “bread basket of the world, as long as we manage to tame the environment,” François-Michel Le Tourneau, geographer and specialist on the Brazilian Amazon at the French research institution CNRS, wrote in one of his several books on the topic.
In 2016, Rodrigues Da Cunha was awarded honorary citizenship by the Mato Grosso state for his willingness to “believe in the region.”
Today, Rodrigues Da Cunha is considered one of the biggest livestock breeders in Brazil. But his success is not without consequences. In 2012, he was sanctioned by Ibama, Brazil’s environmental agency, and fined nearly 2.2 million reais (€900,000 at time) for illegal deforestation on his farm Estrela do Aripuanã in northwestern Mato Grosso. During the affair, Ibama placed part of the farm—the equivalent of about 2,000 football fields—under embargo, temporarily banning livestock breeding on that land.
From JBS to Marfrig: Ranchers adapt
Eleven years after the embargo went into effect, the vegetation appears to have only regrown slightly and agricultural activity continues. Satellite images accessed by Forbidden Stories show evidence of animals on the sanctioned land. (Rodrigues Da Cunha did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Confidential documents obtained by Forbidden Stories show that nearly 500 hundred cattle were transferred from the sanctioned farm, Estrela do Aripuanã, to the Estrela do Sangue feedlot several hundred kilometers away in August 2022. The feedlot is considered “clean” and not linked to deforestation. Other documents confirm that in January 2023, more than 200 cattle were sent from the Estrela do Sangue feedlot to the Marfrig slaughterhouse in the city of Tangará da Serra.
Three years earlier, Phillips revealed a similar laundering scheme that implicated the same two farms. That beef had a different destination: two JBS slaughterhouses.
Today, Rodrigues Da Cunha’s beef goes to Marfrig, Brazil’s second largest beef exporter, passing through a Marfrig slaughterhouse already known for sourcing livestock from land occupied by indigenous communities, as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed last year.
The slaughterhouse has exported more than a billion euros of beef products since 2014, according to trade data analyzed by the media outlet.
The Rodrigues Da Cunha farm delivered cattle to the Marfrig slaughterhouse in Tangará da Serra.
To resell their meat, “farmers always find a way,” Lisa Rausch, a researcher on the politics of deforestation in Brazil at the University of Wisconsin, said.
“Each animal is worth a lot of money—$1,000 for example—so they sell to whoever takes it: a large slaughterhouse, to a small slaughterhouse that doesn’t check, or to another farm that will later sell it.”
When contacted by Forbidden Stories, a spokesperson for Marfrig said the company “condemns the practice of cattle laundering,” but acknowledged that they had been supplied by the Estrela Do Sangue farm. The spokesperson said the farm in question was not under sanctions.
“They always focus on their direct suppliers, claiming that they control and monitor the supply chain, but indirect suppliers are their big weakness,” Mariana Gameiro, Brazil advisor at the NGO Mighty Earth, told Forbidden Stories.
International demand, complicit in the Amazon’s destruction
Through an exclusive analysis by research institute AidEnvironment, the consortium tried to understand how Brazilian beef exports play a role in the deforestation of the Amazon (see methodology at the end of the article). In the last six years, 17,000 square kilometers of land have been deforested, the equivalent of about 800 million trees, in areas that supply 22 of the largest export slaughterhouses in the Amazon. Among these slaughterhouses, 13 belong to JBS, three to Minerva and six to Marfrig, where Rodrigues Ronaldo Da Cunha sells his livestock.
“The Amazon is very close to a tipping point. So these types of figures are very alarming because the Amazon can’t afford to be losing this number of trees,” Alex Wijeratna, a senior director at Mighty Earth, told the consortium. “This has planetary implications.”
In the last forty years, more than 17 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed. Scientists estimate that the Amazon’s “tipping point” is about 20 to 25 percent. Beyond this, the rainforest will increasingly resemble a savannah, which could cause this famous protector against climate change to collapse.
In 2020, an investigation by Phillips and his colleagues showed that once the cattle are “laundered,” Rodrigues Da Cunha’s beef appeared in JBS slaughterhouses authorized to be exported to Hong-Kong, the world’s biggest buyer of Brazilian beef. (Responding to Forbidden Stories, the company said it no longer buys beef from the farm involved in cattle laundering.) Three years later, Rodrigues Da Cunha changed slaughterhouses. Documents indicated that the livestock he resold to the Marfrig slaughterhouse in Tangará da Serra may also be exported to the European Union. In theory, this beef could comply with European health requirements.
The Rotterdam effect
Along the cold aisles usually reserved for restaurants and hotel owners at Dutch wholesalers Makro, Sligro and Hanos, consortium partner NRC found refrigerated and frozen products from the Marfrig slaughterhouse in Tangará da Serra. One of the pieces had the same slaughter date as that from Rodrigues Da Cunha’s Estrela Do Sangue farm: January 19, 2023. The labels did not offer enough information to prove that these are the same animals, as they do not include information regarding the farm from which the beef originated.
When contacted by the consortium, none of the companies involved disputed these findings. Makro acknowledged that they had “problems in the past” with this slaughterhouse, but didn’t comment on new incidents. Sligro justified its imports as a response to increased demand after the Covid-19 pandemic. Hanos said it was “shocked” by our investigation and will look into their importers and “take the necessary measures.”
NRC also contacted several restaurants in Amsterdam that propose Brazilian meat. Only the Loetje chain of restaurants, which has 30 establishments, responded. A spokesperson confirmed that they had purchased from the slaughterhouse, but would stop immediately following our revelations. “Every steak that contributes to deforestation is a steak too many,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email.
Other customers of this particular Marfrig slaughterhouse include Jacobsen, a German meat wholesaler. The company claims on its website that none of its partners operate in the Amazon region. Jacobsen did not respond to our requests for comment.
The investigation also linked this slaughterhouse to Nestlé. The slaughterhouse in Tangará da Serra appears in a list of beef providers available online, and remains so as of the publication date of this article. The agro-food giant, interviewed by our German partner Paper Trail Media, confirmed that Brazilian beef was used in one of its German products until last March. Contacted by the consortium, the company said that it was no longer a customer of the slaughterhouse and declined to give further details on its European imports.
We found beef transported from Tangará da Serra across the world to Germany and the Netherlands and even resold in Europe. This is called the “Rotterdam effect,” named for the port city that is also an international shipping hub. But the meat’s trace disappears here.
This beef, which possibly comes from deforested lands, can be found all over Europe, but it is hard to know exactly where. The EU recently passed a law in May 2023 declaring that products, including beef, from deforested lands cannot be sold in European markets. But this law, which takes effect in 2025, will be difficult to enforce when the origins of beef are so hard to trace.
NGOs welcomed the law but remained concerned about cracks in the system, especially as a free-trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur countries, including Brazil, could increase exports.
The challenge of tracing cooked beef
Cooked beef is nearly impossible to trace through the supply chain. There are not many options to ensure that products imported to the EU are not from deforested lands.
“The only option is an ear-tagging system with animal-level traceability,” Rausch, researcher at University of Wisconsin, said.
This system is mandatory for some beef products coming to Europe, but not for cooked meat.
When it comes to cooked meats, beef tongue is especially popular in French cuisine. Beef tongue has deep roots in French food and French land.
“We eat it at our grandparents’ house. We eat it on Sundays. Here, it’s a celebratory dish,” the celebrity chef Maïté said in an archived video from INA.
Today, it’s rarely cooked at home on a Sunday, but among offals, beef tongue remains a “flagship product” in foodservice, such as school and hospital cafeterias. France does import beef tongue from Brazil, according to a 2013 study by FranceAgriMer, a public administration linked to the French Ministry of Agriculture. The report, still the most recent available, did not give exact figures for imports. Beef tongue does not have a customs code to distinguish it from other prepared meat dishes, so it is difficult to trace.
Importing already-cooked beef tongue can be an ideal solution for industrial food services like schools and hospitals. It’s a cheaper product than fresh meat and faster to prepare and serve. Though effective for a budget, the origins of cooked beef tongue can be more nebulous.
Europe’s lack of transparency
To trace the origin of beef tongues from Brazil that end up in cafeterias, Forbidden Stories consulted catalogs from wholesalers who supply cafeterias. Some publish their catalogs online, complete with practical advice and preparation ideas. The wholesaler Pomona, for example, suggested renaming the menu item “beef tongue in spicy sauce” with “soft beef in a strong sauce,” and adding mustard to make it all go down. Pomona did not respond to our requests for comment.
In addition to culinary tips, wholesalers sometimes also indicated the precise origin of products through the health and safety codes. For the Pomona beef tongue, we found a health inspection number: SIF 337. This number identifies the slaughterhouse where the meat originated, but members of the supply chain are often reluctant to share this information.
Sysco and Espri Restauration, who offer Latin American beef tongues in their catalogs, declined to comment. Other companies declined to share the SIF number for beef tongues in their catalogs, citing “reasons of condentiality and competition.” The consortium also contacted Maison Larzul and the Jean-Hénaff group, whose beef tongues, despite their non-European origin, were listed as “regional products” on the Carrefour website. The Jean-Hénaff group confirmed that it imports beef tongue from Brazil, but neither brand would share the SIF number.
This inspection number is a valuable code for tracing the supply chain and getting to meat’s origins. Health certificate number 337, for example, lists the JBS slaughterhouse in Lins, in the state of São Paul, a major exporter to the United States and Europe.
Although the plant is located outside of the Amazon, there is no guarantee that its products do not originate from deforestation zones. JBS Lins sources its meat from the group’s slaughterhouses across Brazil, including from Pará, an Amazonian state. When contacted, JBS declined to comment.
This factory was already identified by consortium partner Repórter Brasil, which revealed several instances of cattle laundering there. These revelations were at the center of the investigation that Phillips called “the final straw,” in his tweet in 2021. The investigation caused multiple European supermarkets to pull products from the JBS Lins plant and several slaughterhouses from their shelves.
For Wijeratna of Mighty Earth, who participated in that previous investigation, it is “researchers, journalists and civil society who end up having to make sure that commitments are honored.”
Phillips devoted his life to protecting the Amazon, and others will have to pick up where he left off.