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Cheap Brazilian beef imports are 'subsidised by slave labour'By Charles Clover, Environment Editor and Michael Wigan
Beef sold in British pubs, hospitals, schools and office catering is likely to come from Brazilian ranches cleared and worked by slave labour, according to a report to be published later this year.
David Ismail, a Perthshire farmer who has been awarded a scholarship by the Nuffield foundation, visited Brazil to research the social conditions under which the growing exports of beef - which are undermining the world price - are produced.
In remote areas where Brazil's forest is being hacked out of the way for cattle grazing, he found conditions among the homeless labourers and their employers "like the worst scenes in apartheid". He said: "I was shocked when I found how the growth into Europe of Brazilian beef was causing so many problems in Brazil."
His report says that illiterate, landless labourers, housed in shacks, were deprived of medical assistance and sometimes chained to trees. The labourers, mostly from the poor north-east, are brought in to cut down the forest of central Brazil with rough tools and are unpaid, bullied, brutalised and sometimes shot. They are promised high wages, only to find that their board and rations exceed what they are paid.
The workers are described within Brazil as slaves. The Ministry of Labour's Special Anti-Slavery Enforcement Team, set up to hunt down some of the world's last true slaves, managed to release 11,946 of these individuals between 2000 and 2004.
Mr Ismail said: "I concluded that slavery is happening, rainforest development is happening and it is linked with beef entering this country."
Three of Brazil's main beef producing areas, including Mato Grosso do Sul, Sao Paulo and Parana, have been under export restrictions since the autumn because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
Before this, exports of Brazilian beef into Europe were growing at a furious rate. Chilled beef exports last year were 49 per cent up on 2004 and frozen up by 79 per cent. Some Brazilian beef continues to be imported cooked and frozen and used mainly by the catering industry, which is less concerned about traceability than the supermarkets. About 17,000 tons of frozen beef was imported into Britain last year, despite the foot and mouth restrictions, up from 15,200 tons the year before.
Exports took up the slack in the beef market caused by the ban on cattle over 30 months old entering the food chain imposed during the BSE epidemic.
The ending of the 30-month rule late last year should mean that some exports are displaced by home-grown cow beef, but Brazilian exporters now have a bridgehead into the British market and exports are expected to rise once the foot and mouth outbreak is over.
Brazil's export figures do not tally altogether with British import figures, suggesting that some of its beef is being sent to Europe and then passed off as indigenous meat.
Kim Hayward, the policy officer for the National Beef Association, said that Quality Meat Scotland, for which she worked formerly, had meat from Ireland, Scotland and Wales DNA tested. A proportion contained DNA from Brahmin cattle, known as the Zebu, grown only in the tropics.
Duff Burrell, the association's chairman, said: "There is a fair chance that some of the beef from the areas deforested by slaves will be going to the catering trade. Even if the beef you buy has not seen a slave, the extra production in the deforested areas allows the export of the other stuff."
Mr Burrell said that clearer labelling was required to distinguish Britain's Red Tractor farm assurance scheme from Brazilian schemes that were low on welfare and environmental protection.
Details of the report emerged as Lord Bach, the farming minister, attempted to reassure the Oxford farming conference that British farming could remain competitive in the face of increased global competition. He told the conference that New Zealand had showed that farmers could prosper without subsidies in the world market.
But Tim Bennett, the president of the National Farmers' Union, said that Brazil and Argentina would increasingly be among the leading beneficiaries of more trade liberalisation.
"It is our job to explain to the public the qualities and standards that underlie the Red Tractor and to convince customers to prefer our products," he said.
Alberto Fonseca, the commercial councillor at the Brazilian embassy in London, said it was impossible to say that beef from forest areas cleared with slave labour was not coming to Britain. However, most of the beef that was exported was of the highest quality and came from Sao Paulo state, land that was cleared in the 17th and 18th centuries.