Brazil probes California firm for 'biopiracy' of tropical fruit açaí

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian prosecutors said on Tuesday that they were investigating a U.S. company for alleged ‘biopiracy,’ accusing it of illegally using genetic components of the tropical berry açaí in nutritional supplements it sells.

FILE PHOTO: Baskets of acai berries are seen on a truck, to be taken to a market where they will be sold to the food processing industry and to the growing export market, in Abaetetuba, near the mouth of the Amazon river September 26, 2008. REUTERS/Paulo Santos

The federal prosecutors office for the northern state of Amapá, a main producer of açaí, said that the company Sambazon Inc had used the genetic material of the fruit without permission.

Biopiracy is the unlawful appropriation or commercial use of biological materials, such as medicinal plant extracts, that are native to a particular country without providing fair financial compensation to its people or government.

Sambazon representatives in Brazil and its headquarters in California did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Privately-held Sambazon makes fruit juices, fruit packs, frozen desserts and snacks, powders and energy drinks based on açaí imported from Brazil, the company’s website says.

Rich in antioxidants and amino acids, açaí is thought to be one of the most nutritional fruits of the Amazon basin and has become a favorite for health-conscious Californians.

The Brazilian government’s environmental agency Ibama fined Sambazon 75,000 reais ($20,000) last year for not obtaining permission to use açaí genetic material for technological development. In its defense, the company said its products were made by simply adding ingredients to açaí pulp.

The new investigation seeks compensation for the communities that produce açaí in the Amazon rainforest in Amapá state, from where Sambazon imports the fruit, the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation, Rodolfo Lopes, told Reuters.

Besides failing to get authorization from Brazil’s council for the management of genetic biodiversity, Sambazon had not fulfilled a promise to share profits from using açaí genetic material with the communities that picked the berries, he said.

Lopes said a pickers association complaint in 2008 had led to the fine and now the seeking of civil damages.

Founded in 2000, Sambazon began by processing açaí into packs of frozen pulp mixed with guaraná, another berry from the Amazon that contains natural stimulants, and selling it to juice bars and fitness clubs in Southern California.

Açaí smoothies supplanted wheatgrass protein shakes as the drink of choice among athletes and body builders. Sambazon now sells its products in grocery stores across the United States.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien