Brazil's Marfrig resumes U.S. beef sales amid coronavirus closures

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Marfrig Global Foods has resumed sales of fresh beef from Brazil to the United States amid supply disruptions in the U.S. market during the coronavirus epidemic, the Brazilian company’s chief executive told Reuters.

The United States allowed such sales to resume in February after lifting a ban in place since 2017 over health concerns. The first shipments should occur this month, Marfrig CEO Miguel Gularte said in an interview on Friday.

An increase in U.S. beef purchases was first identified at Marfrig’s units in Argentina and Uruguay.

“In the last 15 days this has been noticed in Brazil,” Gularte said, without detailing volumes.

With the reopening of the U.S. market to fresh beef from Brazil, the largest global exporter of protein, the company already had a strategy of resuming shipments to the United States, Gularte said. But demand for Brazilian beef picked up after recent U.S. meat plant closures during the coronavirus epidemic.

Marfrig, which owns Missouri-based National Beef [NBEEF.UL], temporarily suspended production at its Iowa beef plant after workers tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

The company does not plan to suspend production at any other U.S. plants, he said.

National Beef’s total slaughtering capacity in the United States is 13,000 head per day, with 1,100 at the Iowa plant, which has resumed production, Gularte said.

U.S. rivals including JBS SA and Tyson Foods also have had to suspend production at some plants, raising the prospect of meat shortages in the United States.

Overall Brazilian beef exports rose by 5% in the first quarter while Marfrig’s own beef sales abroad soared 24%, driven mainly by strong Chinese demand.

A rise in U.S. meat sales is likely in the short term as American consumers stock up on food during the health crisis, he said.

Reporting by Nayara Figueiredo; Writing by Ana Mano; Editing by Chris Reese, Leslie Adler and Richard Chang