Three Brazilian gangs infiltrated Brazilian meatpacking plants and smuggled tons of horsemeat into the country disguised as beef, Brazilian Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi said Sunday, in an effort to sell fake meat in Europe, Asia and the United States.
The heads of the cartels – which bankrolled their operations by using money from food products fraud – hid the scandal by creating a fake credit card system and abusing legal loopholes, Maggi said.
The fraud involved horsemeat in dairy products, steaks and other cuts, which could have been sold in 500,000 restaurants in Europe, Maggi said. More than 35 million pounds of horsemeat could be illegal and illegal food in Brazil, he said.
“It is a significant market for equine meat there,” Maggi said in an interview with Globo TV.
He also said that officials are still investigating the network’s possible links to money launderers and terrorists.
The Brazilian cartels, which operated through businesses registered under fictitious names, bought horsemeat and injected it with additives such as chemicals and antibiotics to fool the checking systems of chicken processors, Maggi said.
More than 6,000 tons of horsemeat worth $12 million entered the country with the help of the Brazilian gangs.
“These guys invested $150 million in world horsemeat trade,” Maggi said.
The scams began two years ago and spread in other Latin American countries. In December, authorities arrested 17 people in Uruguay who were accused of using money from food products fraud to run frauds in Paraguay and Brazil. Some of the horses were smuggled from Uruguay to Paraguay, which then moved them to Brazil to be smuggled into Europe, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Officials believe that the Brazilian companies behind the fraud may also have links to criminal activities such as drug trafficking and sex trafficking.
President Dilma Rousseff apologized to Brazilians, declaring a national security alert for Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, where the groups operate.
“This is an outrage,” Rousseff said in a statement. “There is no nation on earth that tolerates the export of horsemeat, even if that were to be substituted for the stolen meat of cows.”
The State Department is “deeply concerned about allegations that Brazilian law enforcement authorities have uncovered a sophisticated fraud network involving fraudulent commodities such as horsemeat that is used in suspicious and dangerous circumstances,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
Some U.S. legislators, including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), have called for a recall of all American beef and pork products imported from Brazil.