SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil's president said Tuesday that a scandal over sale of expired meat is an "economic embarrassment" and Hong Kong joined several countries in suspending some meat imports from the South American nation.
President Michel Temer sought to downplay the scandal, calling it a "fuss" and noting that only three of the more than 4,000 meatpacking plants in Brazil have been forced to close.
Still, he acknowledged that it has caused "an economic embarrassment for the country" as he spoke to a conference organized by the Council of the Americas.
The European Union, mainland China and Chile have halted some meat imports from Brazil, a major blow to the struggling economy of a country that is among the world's largest exporters of meat.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong's Center for Food Safety announced that it would temporarily suspend imports of frozen and chilled meat and poultry from Brazil, starting immediately. The center said that it was taking the precaution despite the fact that no inspection in the past three years has ever flagged meat or poultry imports from Brazil.
Brazilian investigators charge that health inspectors were bribed to overlook the sale of expired meats. Police also allege that the appearance and smell of expired meats was improved by using chemicals and cheaper products like water and manioc flour.
The government has barred the exports of meats from 21 plants being investigated, but that has not fully allayed concerns of the countries it exports to. Sales for internal consumption in Brazil are not affected.
Brazil got a small reprieve on Tuesday, when South Korea decided to lift a ban it had put in place on chicken products from BRF, one of the companies involved in the scandal. It said it will continue to strengthen inspections on Brazilian imports, however.
Despite the about-face, supermarket chains in South Korea were pulling Brazilian chicken products from the shelves Tuesday.
The European Union has temporarily barred the companies involved in the scandal from shipping to the EU, while Chile announced a temporary suspension of Brazilian meat imports.
On Friday, police issued 38 arrest warrants related to the probe, naming several companies including giant meatpackers JBS and BRF. Both have denied wrongdoing.
Associated Press video journalists Renata Brito and Mario Lobao in Rio de Janeiro and AP writers Peter Prengaman in Rio de Janeiro, Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Youkyung Lee in Seoul contributed to this report.