British troops fed by corrupt Brazilian meat firm tied to illegal Amazon deforestation

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

Ration packs used by the armed forces have contained beef and chicken from controversial Brazilian company JBS since 2009 and until at least 2016, while Brazilian beef is still used by the MoD, Earthsight has discovered.

British army ration packs have for years been stocked with beef from a Brazilian firm mired in allegations of environmental violations, systemic corruption and human rights abuses, a new Earthsight investigation can reveal.

Operational Ration Packs (ORP) used by UK armed forces personnel domestically from 2009 until at least as recently as 2016 have been manufactured by the controversial meatpacking giant JBS.

The MoD confirmed to Earthsight that it is still using Brazilian beef, and it is possible that this continues to include meat from JBS – a firm fined £6.5m in 2017 for buying cattle reared on illegally deforested Amazon land.

Cattle-ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, where recent forest fires triggered a wave of unprecedented global concern.

Earthsight research has uncovered that Vestey Foods, a long-standing Ministry of Defence (MoD) supplier and the UK catering provider for personnel on active deployment, has used tonnes of JBS’s Brazilian beef in military meals.

Between 2009 and 2016, at least four MoD-approved ration pack meals – ‘Beef With Cassava’, ‘Chilli Con Carne’, ‘Beef Stroganoff’ and ‘Chicken Own Juice’ – were manufactured for Vestey Foods by JBS in Brazil.

An MoD marketing brochure found by Earthsight includes an image of the ‘Beef With Cassava’ ration pack marked as being produced by Bertin – a firm JBS acquired in 2009.

Video and images of the ration packs discovered by Earthsight show that after JBS’s purchase of Bertin, all four meals were labelled as being produced by JBS SA for Vestey Foods. All are stamped with ‘SIF 337’ – a Brazilian traceability code corresponding to a JBS facility in Lins, São Paulo.

Shipment records reveal Vestey’s imports from JBS of the three beef meals continued until March 2015 with product descriptions including the acronym ‘RP’ – indicating “ration packs”.

The last two recorded shipments, totalling $358,000 (£239,000), occurred in February and March 2015 and could have been used for up to three years thereafter. One video found of the Chilli Con Carne meal states it was produced in 2013 and labelled for use until March 2016.

The ‘Beef With Cassava’ product was promoted on Vestey’s old website as part of its MoD-approved menu options until June 2016, according to internet archive data.

In addition, video footage of armed forces staff unloading a 10-man OPR box shows another JBS-produced ration pack imprinted with ‘SIF 337’ – the ‘Chicken Own Juice’ meal.

British army ration packs have used JBS meat since 2009. The 'Beef Stroganoff' meal is one of four identified by Earthsight with 'SIF 337'.

After 2016, JBS no longer appears as the named producer on ration pack images seen by Earthsight, with the majority now labelled as “produced in the UK for Vestey Foods”.

However, shipment metadata analysed by Earthsight shows that JBS still provides significant quantities of Brazilian beef and chicken to Vestey Foods.

Between July 2014 and 2019, Vestey Foods received more than 800 tonnes of JBS meat at a facility in Kent totalling $4.2m (£3.2m). These included various pouches of prepared beef and chicken.

Shipment records show that JBS is still sending ‘RP’ denoted beef ‘pouches’ to Vestey Foods from its Lins facility. Its latest delivery to Vestey was $44,400 (£33,900) of ‘RP Minced Beef’ and ‘RP Steak Own Juice’ pouches in February 2019.

The ‘Chicken Own Juice’ variant was consistently shipped from JBS to Vestey during the five-year period for which trade data is available to Earthsight, and as recently as December 2018.

Online footage of a 2018 Single Meal Ration Pack displays a pouch of ‘Pasta Bolognese – minced beef with pasta and tomato sauce’, while similar footage of a 2019 ration pack contains a ‘Chilli Con Carne’ meal.

While post-2015 JBS shipments include ingredients suitable for the newer beef and chicken ration packs supplied by Vestey (the firm signed a new £73m contact with the MoD in 2017) the origins of the beef or chicken are no longer stated on the packs.

The MoD did not respond to requests made by Earthsight for clarification on whether JBS meat is used in its current contract with Vestey Foods nor did Vestey Foods respond when asked if JBS meat was still used in ration packs for armed forces personnel. JBS failed to respond.

The MoD also declined to clarify whether or not JBS’ beef is used for its other catering provisions.

An MoD spokesperson told Earthsight: “We are committed to upholding ethical procurement practices and do not directly contract with either Minerva or JBS. We are working with our suppliers to address any concerns surrounding the recent link between sourcing beef from Brazil and deforestation.”

In response to an earlier Earthsight Freedom of Information request, the MoD – which uses two million ration packs per year – added that supplier information “is a matter for the contractors”.

From Brazil to the world

The UK government donated £10m in aid following the Amazon fires yet has for years bumped up the profits of JBS – identified as having slaughterhouses near to the fires and exposed to the most deforestation risk in the area.

JBS is the world’s largest meat producer, employing more than 230,000 people and with 2018 revenues north of 180 billion Brazilian Reals (£36.5bn). Nonetheless, it has been dogged by high-profile deforestation and corruption cases.

In 2016 JBS was found to have purchased thousands of cattle from a notorious rancher known as Jotinha, who was arrested in relation to a massive illegal deforestation case and is believed to be the single largest deforester in Amazon history.

Between 2013 and 2014, JBS bought R$5.9m (£1.6m) in cattle from Jotinha’s farms in Pará. His farms have also been sanctioned for using slave labour. JBS said they stopped buying from Jotinha’s farm after learning of the illegalities.

In 2017, two JBS-owned slaughterhouses bought nearly 50,000 heads of cattle from ranches guilty of illegal deforestation in the Amazon. It was fined R$24.7m (£6.5m). The company denied wrongdoing and said it “does not buy livestock from ranches that practice illegal deforestation”.

JBS was that year also implicated in Operation Car Wash, one of the largest corruption scandals in Latin American history.

The Batista brothers, JBS’s founders and controlling shareholders, admitted to making illegal campaign donations to 1,829 candidates from 28 political parties for more than ten years in return for favourable policies once candidates were elected. In total, nearly R$600m (£143m) was donated.

J&F Investimentos, JBS’ controlling shareholder, agreed to pay a R$10.3bn (£2.4bn) fine in a leniency agreement with state prosecutors.

Meanwhile, the firm was further exposed in 2017 for bribing sanitary inspectors to allow rotten meat to be sold domestically and abroad. Vestey Foods in the UK purchased $457,500 (£339,000) worth of JBS meat that year – nearly all labelled with the ‘RP’ prefix.

An internal investigation launched by JBS after the corruption scandal is set to deliver its findings – based on analysis of 220 terabytes of data and testimony from 600 employees – this year and observers are expecting extra wrongdoing across the company to be uncovered.

JBS is one of three Brazilian firms known to have supplied beef to the UK armed forces. Brazil’s second largest meat producer Minerva and SulBeef supply beef to armed forces personnel stationed in Bahrain, a recent Freedom of Information request filed by Earthsight discovered.

Vestey’s Royal connections

Vestey Holdings has grown from a Liverpool butchers founded in in 1897 by the aristocratic Vestey brothers William and Edmund into a global food conglomerate.

Today, Lord Vestey – a close friend of Prince Charles – and family have an estimated fortune of £731m. Vestey Foods also owns Donald Russel, a Scottish butchery with a Royal warrant.

The firm has found itself entangled in controversies involving indigenous land rights in Australia, the UK horsemeat scandal and its cattle ranching activities in Venezuela.

Earthsight research has further identified Vestey Foods as providers of ration packs to the United Nations. Vestey Holdings’ latest annual accounts, which reveal its UK food arm turned over £262m in 2018, reference the ‘UN ration pack contract won towards the end of 2017’.

The contract specifics are unknown, but shipment data indicates that JBS beef Vestey Foods purchased in 2018 may be UN-bound, with beef items described as ‘RP Minced Beef … UN Halal’. The company has also held catering contracts with the militaries of Ireland, France and Denmark among others.

The sources of JBS beef imported by Vestey into the UK is unknown.

And although the army ration packs that have previously contained JBS beef may not have come from illegally deforested lands or suspect supply chains, questions remain about the MoD’s possible continuing relationship with a firm that has such a chequered history.

In an FOI response the MoD explained that 107 products were “deemed available to be ordered” in 2017 and 2018 that contained beef or beef products and that “four contain beef sourced from Brazil using Brazilian meat. Six further lines can be sourced from Brazil, depending on licence and market availability.”  The response added that, “Information is not held on how many of those 107 lines were actually supplied.”

Illegal Deforestation Monitor is a platform managed by Earthsight, in partnership with Fern. Earthsight is an environmental investigations NGO based in London. 

Image on homepage, credit: Creative Commons. Image of Amazon fires, credit: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace.

*This article was updated on 19 September to include an MoD response given to Earthsight on that date.