The Guardian: Waitrose pulls its corned beef off shelves after Guardian reveals alleged slavery links

A former slave in Brazil. JBS says it ceased buying from the farm under investigation, in the northern state of Pará, after discovering the allegations over exploitation of workers. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tuesday 6 June 2017 08.20 EDT

Documents show JBS, which supplies beef to retailers including Waitrose, previously bought cattle from Brazilian farm now being investigated for labour abuse

Waitrose is taking its own-brand corned beef from Brazil off supermarket shelves after an investigation by the Guardian and Brazilian journalists found the products could contain meat linked to slave labour on cattle farms.

Documents obtained by the Guardian and Repórter Brasil show that JBS, one of the world’s largest meat processing companies, previously purchased cattle from a farm under federal investigation for using workers as modern-day slaves.

JBS says it ceased buying from the farm on discovering the alleged link to labour abuses.

The company exports meat products to 150 countries around the world. Its produce is used in tinned corned beef sold by major retailers including Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Co-Op, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Princes.

JBS also supplies indirectly to the NHS, through Marillo Foods Limited. Last year, the NHS supplied 162 trusts with 36,000 units of corned beef from Marillo.

According to official documents seen by the Guardian and Repórter Brasil, JBS paid £2m between 2013 and 2016 for cattle reared on a farm in the northern state of Pará where prosecutors claim workers were being subjected to modern slavery as defined under Brazilian law.

In a series of raids in June 2016, prosecutors say federal police officers discovered men forced to live in inhumane and degrading conditions, with no shelter and no toilets or drinking water. Prosecutors believe the workers were in debt bondage, with payments for food and protective equipment illegally deducted from their wages.

The farm owner, Antônio José Junqueira Vilela Filho, had previously been fined 119m reais (£29m) for deforesting an area of rainforest roughly equivalent to the size of central London.

In response to the Guardian’s allegations, JBS said the farm was not included in the government’s official “blacklist” of companies known to use slave labour. JBS added that it had ceased buying from the farm following the raids.

Workers at the JBS meat processing plant in Lapa, in the Brazilian state of Paraná. Photograph: Joedson Alves/EPA

“As soon as JBS became aware of irregularities in the … farm’s operations in 2016, all livestock purchases from the Junqueira family were immediately stopped,” the firm said in a statement.

“JBS does not buy cattle from any farms which have any association with slave labour, as listed by the Brazilian government and updates all of the information contained in … the ministry of labour ‘black list’ of slave labour on a daily basis.”

Waitrose said it was taking cans of corned beef linked to JBS off its shelves while it conducted an investigation.

In a statement, Waitrose said: “While we have found no such concerns in our own supply chain and have recent audits, including April 2017, we are taking these allegations seriously so have stopped sourcing any of our corned beef from there while we investigate fully.”

Lidl and the Co-op also said they were conducting internal supply chain investigations. M&S said it stopped buying corned beef from Brazil at the end of 2016. Sainsbury’s and Princes said their business was conducted in line with ethical and global standards.

A spokesman said the NHS has also launched an inquiry: “NHS Supply Chain was not aware of these allegations. As soon as you brought this to our attention, we immediately contacted our supplier to discuss these serious allegations and we are conducting an inquiry into this matter.”

Antônio Carlos de Mello Rosa, who heads the International Labour Organisation’s anti-slavery work in Brazil, criticised JBS for hiding behind the government blacklist, saying companies had a responsibility to police their own supply chains.

Herders drive cattle in Pará state. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

“Any economic sector has to do their own self-regulation as well as using the blacklist to check whether slave labour is taking place in their supply chain,” he said.

More than 13,000 workers have been rescued from modern-day slavery on cattle farms in Brazil since 1995.

There is growing concern over bills put before congress in recent months that aim to redefine what constitutes modern slavery under Brazilian law. The proposed changes include allowing employers to pay workers in food and housing, permitting employees to work 18 days without a break and removing the words “exhaustive shifts” and “degrading conditions” from existing legislation.

The UN office in Brazil considers the proposals “very troubling”.

Xavier Plassat, head of the Pastoral Land Commission, said industrial sectors pushing for less stringent labour legislation are “opening the door to an upsurge in slave labour”.

JBS is currently engulfed in a scandal that threatens to topple Brazilian President Michel Temer and his government, after the company’s former chairman Joesley Batista secretly taped the president allegedly discussing bribes. Last week J&F, the holding company controlled by Joesley and his brother Wesley Batista, was fined 10.3bn reais ($3.16bn) over a series of corruption investigations after the brothers admitted to bribing thousands of politicians.

The British Retail Consortium called on the Brazilian government to uphold human rights and environmental rights in its export industries.

“Whilst it is recognized that Brazil has significant challenges, the country has led efforts to tackle modern slavery through laws and enforcement,” said a spokesperson.

“However, recent legislative developments may be putting that progress at risk and this example demonstrates how vital it is for effective laws and enforcement to protect people and the environment from exploitation. We urge the Brazilian government to take swift and concrete action to address this issue and underpin the controls implemented in our supply chains.”