BRASÍLIA - Brazil's president held crisis talks Sunday with ministers and foreign ambassadors to try and limit the damage to trade from allegations that major Brazilian producers have been selling rotten meat worldwide.
Police allegations that meat producers bribed health inspectors for years to certify tainted food as fit for consumption has struck at the heart of the world's leading beef and chicken exporter.
Temer -- whose government is already battered by a huge embezzlement scandal and Brazil's deepest recession in history -- huddled first with meatpacking representatives, Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi and Trade Minister Marcos Pereira.
As international concern grew, the embattled president was to meet next with ambassadors from major importers, Temer's office said.
About 150 countries buy meat from Brazil, with principal markets as widespread as Saudi Arabia, China, Singapore, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands and Italy. Brazil exported about $5.9 billion in poultry and $4.3 billion in beef in 2016, according to Brazilian government data.
So far police have arrested at least 30 people in the alleged scheme, raiding more than a dozen processing plants and issuing 27 arrest warrants. A poultry-processing plant run by the multinational BRF group and two meat-processing plants operated by the local Peccin company were shut down, the Agriculture Ministry said.
An additional 21 establishments are under investigation, and the ministry dismissed 33 officials allegedly involved in the scheme.
- Fears of trade fallout -
For Brazil, the worry is that the scandal will ruin global appetites for its food.
The row comes at a sensitive time, as Brazil and other members of South America's Mercosur group are pushing for a trade deal with the European Union, a big market for Brazilian meat.
The EU ambassador to Brazil, Joao Cravinho, tweeted on Sunday that "we asked for complete, urgent clarifications from the agriculture ministry."
"It really complicates negotiations," admitted Brazilian under secretary general for economic and financial affairs at the foreign ministry, Carlos Marcio Cozendey.
However, he insisted that the problems were limited in scope.
"From the criminal, corruption point of view, it's obviously a very serious incident," Cozendey told AFP. However, "based on what we know now, it won't impact the control system as a whole."
He urged that any response to the crisis be "proportional" and said foreign partners should not overreact. "I hope that this is not used to unjustifiably close markets."
Companies in the police crosshairs denied that there was anything wrong with their products.
The authorities did not say where tainted products had been found, but noted, in a news conference in the southern city of Curitiba, that carcinogenic substances had in some cases been used to mask the odor of bad meat.
Federal police were due to give further details at a press conference on Monday.
In addition to the giant BRF firm, which owns the Sadia and Perdigao brands, companies under investigation include JBS, a world leader in meat sales and owner of the Big Frango, Seara Alimentos and Swift brands.
JBS took out a full-page ad in the newspaper O Globo to say that the federal office conducting the investigation had made no mention of health problems stemming from JBS products. The BRF group is running similar ads, saying its products pose no health risk "whatsoever."
An ad in which actor Robert De Niro testifies to the quality of JBS's Seara ham -- with its "authentic Italian flavor" -- has gotten heavy play on Brazilian television.
But Professor Silvia Farias, who shops in a Rio supermarket, said reports that some chicken products may be mixed with cardboard are worrying.