Brazil agriculture ministry investigates food processor BRF - source

SAO PAULO, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Brazil’s agriculture ministry has opened its own corruption probe into police allegations that BRF SA, the world’s largest chicken exporter, evaded food safety standards, a ministry official said on Wednesday.

The investigation, announced in the official gazette on Oct. 17, does not name any companies. It follows the release two days earlier of a report by federal police claiming senior managers at BRF allegedly adulterated documents and laboratory results to dodge food safety and quality checks.

The ministry official, who asked not to be identified, said the investigation concerns companies cited in a March 2018 federal police operation, codenamed Trapaça.

The operation alleged that BRF and laboratory Mérieux NutriSciences Brasil colluded to bypass official controls.

The Agriculture Ministry’s press office had no immediate comment. BRF said it has not been notified of the ministry’s investigation and could not comment. Mérieux denied the fraud and corruption allegations.

Federal police alleged that BRF tried to control dissemination of news that China found traces of the highly toxic dioxin in chicken imports from Brazil in 2015, and acted to prevent the government from investigating the case thoroughly.

The police also accused BRF of using the forbidden antibiotic Nitrofurazone and misreporting the levels of other antibiotics in its industrial processes. BRF has said it is cooperating with the investigation and suspended all employees named in the police report.

Authorities found evidence that BRF ordered the slaughter in 2016 of about 26,000 birds infected with Salmonella Typhimurium, a pathogen harmful to humans, as well as faked information provided to authorities to hide that decision.

The police said chicken from this batch was sold in at least 10 Brazilian states and exported to Europe.

The food sector probe started in March 2017 with an operation codenamed “Weak Flesh” and was expanded in March 2018 with Trapaça, the Portuguese word for cheating.

There is no “undisputable” evidence yet of any wrongdoing by government officials, the police said.

But the Agriculture Ministry said that 22 civil servants were implicated in the first part of the probe, and 19 have been suspended from office pending the end of administrative proceedings.

Last week, the police indicted 43 people in connection with the its criminal investigation, including a former BRF chief executive and a chairman. Now prosecutors must decide whether to charge the people, ask for additional evidence or dismiss the police claims.

The case disrupted production and caused the temporary closure of export markets to Brazilian meat purveyors. (Reporting by Ana Mano Editing by Dan Flynn and Susan Thomas)