UPDATE 3-Brazil meatpackers declare exports free from coronavirus at China's request

(Adds BRF signing declaration)

SAO PAULO, June 23 (Reuters) - Brazilian meat processors JBS SA, BRF, Minerva and Marfrig have signed declarations at the request of Chinese authorities, saying their exports are free of the novel coronavirus, according to company sources and a statement.

BRF, the world’s largest chicken exporter, said in a statement on Tuesday that it had signed a declaration of coronavirus-free exports to China. The company added there was no evidence that the disease is transmitted by food.

The three other firms declined to comment.

A source close to Marfrig said the declaration requested by Chinese authorities was valid for cargoes en route to China and new contracts.

Major meat-exporting nations, such as Brazil and the United States, have had tens of thousands of cases of COVID-19 among workers in meat plants.

China has stepped up inspections of meat imports after a new cluster of virus infections in Beijing was linked to a wholesale food market.

The Brazilian Animal Protein Association (ABPA) confirmed that local exporters had received “declaration requests made by importers that they comply with Chinese legislation, which guarantees food safety.”

ABPA said Brazilian meat exporters followed recommendations from the World Health Organization and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, and also observed Brazilian and Chinese regulations with respect to food safety and prevention against COVID-19.

In a separate statement, ABPA said it forecast that Brazilian chicken and pork exports to China would exceed 1 million tonnes in 2020, up from 834,000 tonnes last year.

Workers involved in meat production are not exposed to the virus through the products they handle, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But contamination of employees, who work in densely packed stations in cold, virus-preserving environments, has caused plants to close temporarily in various countries.

In the United States, the CDC has recommended that meatpacking workers be spaced at least 6 feet (1.8 metres) apart. But in Brazil, only a distance of 1 metre (3.2 feet) is required under guidelines issued last week, which labor prosecutors say is inadequate. (Reporting by Ana Mano and Nayara Figueiredo in São Paulo; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)