Brazil beef scandal leaves fewer options for global buyers

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Global beef buyers will likely need to cobble together supplies from several nations if a scandal persists in Brazil’s meat sector because supply constraints and politics are already limiting trade flows, market analysts said on Monday.

China suspended imports of all meat products from Brazil, the world’s top beef exporter, as a precautionary measure after inspectors there were accused of taking bribes to allow sales of tainted food. South Korea, the EU and Chile also curtailed meat imports from Brazil.

Brazilian police on Friday named BRF SA BRFS3.SA and JBS SA JBSS3.SA, along with dozens of smaller rivals, in a two-year probe into how meat packers allegedly paid off the inspectors and politicians to overlook improper practices.

China, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls the world’s fastest growing market for beef, accounted for nearly one-third of the Brazilian meat packing industry’s $13.9 billion in exports last year.

Australia, Argentina and Canada could fill in the gap during the ban, said Mike Zuzolo, president of U.S. brokerage Global Commodity Analytics. However, each shipper faces its own challenges in the market.

Much of the beef exported from Brazil is grass-fed, putting it in direct competition with New Zealand and Australia. Australia, the world’s second biggest exporter, is an unattractive replacement, though, because prices are high due to drought, said Derrell Peel, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University.

“They’re under a production squeeze right now,” he said.

And in Argentina, producers are still rebuilding their beef industry after trade controls imposed under its former left-leaning government hurt exports, traders said.

About 31 percent of China’s beef imports came from Brazil in the first half of last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Australia had about 19 percent of China’s import market, while Argentina held about 8 percent.

China, whose beef cattle industry is still dominated by small backyard farms, has not bought beef from the United States since a scare over mad cow disease in 2003. Its new ban on Brazil’s meat could accelerate talks to reopen trade, Peel said.

Cargill Ltd [CARGIL.UL], one of the world's largest commodity trading houses, said it was too early to know how Brazil's scandal may impact U.S. beef exports. Tyson Foods Inc TSN.N declined to comment.

Brazil’s scandal could provide an overall beef price lift if it limits the pool of globally traded beef and forces buyers to lean more heavily on other suppliers, said Ron Davidson, spokesman for Canadian Meat Council, whose members include Cargill and JBS. However, beef exported from Canada, the world’s sixth-biggest shipper, is largely fed with grain, not grass.

“The Canadian product might look more competitive if the opportunity to import from Brazil is lessened,” Davidson said.

Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Leslie Adler