Corned Beef And Handbags: How US Consumers Are Unwittingly Contributing To Deforestation In The Amazon

“The consumers are part of the problem because of course if the consumer decides not to consume any of this, there would be no supply.”

Sometimes it’s there if you look for it, hiding in plain sight.

Printed in small black type, the words “Product of Brazil” appear on cans of corned beef at grocery stores across the United States.

In other cases, the connection is murkier. A handbag sold at American shopping malls may have been made in Italy, but with the hide of a cow that grazed on land in the Amazon. Millions pay with credit cards issued by US-based banks that have quietly financed deforestation operations.

These are just a few of the many ways American consumers, often unwittingly and at the hands of large multinational corporations, are contributing to alarming deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest, which soaks up huge amounts of carbon dioxide and is seen as vital in the fight against climate change.

While the US imports a relatively small amount of Brazilian beef each year — and even less so since officials suspended fresh beef imports from the country over food safety concerns in 2017 — Americans’ hunger for beef and leather is helping to drive the destruction of the Amazon as global appetite continues to grow.

Beef consumption around the world has soared in recent years as human populations and incomes increase. In the US, where meat consumption is among the highest globally, the vast majority of beef products are sold domestically, forcing the rest of the world to import meat from other countries, like Brazil.

“The consumers are part of the problem because of course if the consumer decides not to consume any of this, there would be no supply,” said Eduardo Souza-Rodrigues, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Toronto.

Cattle ranching is the leading driver of deforestation in Brazil, the world’s largest supplier of beef last year, and accounts for 80% of the Amazon destruction. As global demand for beef has grown, ranchers have expanded their operations, clear-cutting and burning more of the lush forest to make room for pasture.

The increasingly dire situation in the Amazon captured the world’s attention in August after smoke from deforestation-linked fires plunged São Paulo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, into darkness. More than 90,000 fires have been detected in Brazil so far this year, the majority in the Amazon region, representing a 59% increase over last year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

Scientists believe many of the blazes have been set by farmers and ranchers trying to clear land, while Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has advocated for the development of the Amazon, has deflected blame and made unsubstantiated claims about the cause of the fires.

In 2009, after Greenpeace released a report connecting meat processing companies to farmers involved in deforestation, three of Brazil’s largest beef exporters — JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva — entered into an agreement with the environmental group to no longer source from farmers involved in deforestation.

“It’s still a black box where the animal comes from before it shows up with the person you're doing business with.”

Since then, the companies have made progress in removing cattle linked to deforestation from their supply chains, but environmental advocates say — and as this year’s uptick in the fires suggests — they're still not doing enough.

“We still don’t have assurances that the beef is free of deforestation,” Greenpeace USA Forest Campaign Director Daniel Brindis told BuzzFeed News.

Brindis said that although the companies have been able to show that their direct suppliers aren’t involved in deforestation, they don’t always disclose whom their suppliers are buying from.

“It’s still a black box where the animal comes from before it shows up with the person you're doing business with,” he said.

In statements provided to BuzzFeed News, JBS and Minerva defended their operations and maintained that the firms do not purchase animal products from farms involved in deforestation, citing third-party audits on their supply chains that say the companies are in compliance with agreements to not buy cattle from government-protected areas or from farmers engaged in deforestation. Marfrig did not respond to requests for comment.

However, the most recent audits provided by JBS and Minerva acknowledged that the companies do not have procedures to scrutinize indirect suppliers of cattle.

“Indirect suppliers of cattle to JBS are not yet checked systematically since JBS and the industry in general has not yet managed to adopt auditable procedures for its indirect suppliers,” states a July 2019 audit by Norwegian company DNV GL.

It’s difficult to trace which stores and restaurants Brazilian beef ends up in in the US and around the world. Neither the USDA nor Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply tracks which companies import the products. The beef exporters did not provide information about their customers to BuzzFeed News.

However, investigations by Greenpeace and other environmental groups have linked a slew of global retailers and brands to the meatpacking companies and producers of soy, another commodity that has contributed to deforestation in the Amazon.

Though soy-linked deforestation in the Amazon has been largely eliminated as a result of a 2006 moratorium, soy production has fueled the destruction of Brazil’s Cerrado savanna, the most biodiverse tropical grassland in the world and a major store of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

A report published last week by Mighty Earth, an environmental campaign organization, identified Walmart, Costco, and McDonald’s as among the leading American companies perpetuating the global market for meat that finances the Amazon’s destruction.

According to the report, Walmart and Costco are two of the top customers of JBS and Cargill, the US-based agribusiness giant that ranks among the top exporters of Brazilian soy. McDonald’s restaurants, it says, are “essentially storefronts” for Cargill, which supplies chicken and beef products to the iconic fast-food chain’s eateries.

Neither McDonald’s nor Costco responded to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment. A Walmart spokesperson said in a statement that the company was working with public and private partners to reduce deforestation.

“We believe that both collaborative action and traceability across our global supply chain are needed to reduce deforestation associated with the production of beef and soy in Brazil,” the spokesperson said.

Despite US companies’ ties to Brazilian beef exporters, Americans won’t find much beef from Brazil at their local grocery stores or restaurants. In 2017, the US suspended imports of fresh beef after Brazil Federal Police arrested dozens of food inspectors for allegedly accepting bribes to allow expired meat to be sold and falsifying sanitary permits.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recently conducted an audit of Brazil’s food safety inspection system but has not made a decision yet on whether to resume imports of fresh beef, according to an agency spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the US has continued to import a relatively small volume of processed beef from Brazil — about 31,000 tons last year, according to the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association. The imports include corned beef, beef jerky, and other cooked beef products that end up in soups or stews.

Dan Hare, a spokesperson for Conagra Foods, which manufactures and owns a variety of consumer food brands, including Slim Jim and Orville Redenbacher’s, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that Conagra Foods’ corned beef product sold under the Libby’s brand name contains meat from Brazil, but said the company obtains the vast majority of its beef from US-raised cattle.

Brazilian beef is also sometimes used for Libby’s corned beef hash, but none of the company’s other food products contain beef from the South American country, Hare said.

The spokesperson declined to say who supplies the food giant with Brazilian beef but said the company’s supplier has a policy prohibiting the purchase of cattle from farms involved in deforestation and uses satellite systems to monitor compliance.

While raw meat would contain labels indicating the country of origin, not all cans of processed beef sold in the US have labels indicating whether it was imported from Brazil or another country, according to the USDA, making it difficult for consumers to know the origin of the product.

“If the beef is imported, then removed from the container and further processed into other meat food products (e.g., a beef stew or beef soup), it would just be labeled as ‘beef’ in the ingredients statement,” an inspection service spokesperson said in an email.

Even though the vast majority of beef consumed by Americans comes from cattle raised in the US, our demand for burgers and steaks may still be playing a role in the destruction of the Amazon.

“It doesn't matter that much if you eat a lot of beef grown in the US — because if you do, you're taking beef off an international market,” said Michael O'Hare, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

O’Hare, who researched sugarcane ethanol production and land use in Brazil, told BuzzFeed News that if Americans eat less beef, it will reduce the demand for more cattle in the Amazon.

“That alone will not save the rainforest ... but every little bit helps,” O’Hare said.

China and Hong Kong are the top destinations for Brazilian beef — each of them imported more than $1.4 billion worth of meat, or about 44% of all Brazil’s beef exports last year, according to Brazilian officials.

The US ranked sixth in beef imports from Brazil during the same period, bringing in just $263 million worth of meat. It was, however, the top importer of another byproduct of cattle: leather.

In 2018, the US imported more than $383 million worth of leather, cowhide, and other leather products from Brazil — almost 21% of all the country’s leather exports — according to the Ministry of Agriculture. China and Italy followed with about $369 million and $257 million respectively in Brazilian leather imports.

According to Greenpeace’s 2009 report on deforestation in the Amazon, shoes represent the top use of leather globally, followed by furniture and upholstery for car interiors. Handbags are another major leather product sourced from Brazil’s cattle ranches, especially in Italy, where the fashionable accessories account for about two-thirds of the value of all Italian leather exports.

The report connected Bertin, a top exporter of Brazilian leather that is now owned by JBS, to major American and European shoe companies like Nike, Adidas, Timberland, and Clarks, as well as US automotive leather company Eagle Ottawa, whose products have been used by nearly every major automaker, including BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Ford, Honda, Toyota, and General Motors brands, according to its website.

“A lot of that leather comes from slaughterhouses in Brazil and then is directly exported to the US,” Brindis said.

A popular US accessories company may have also received leather exports from Brazil. According to another report released this year by Amazon Watch, a California-based nonprofit, Brighton Collectibles, received shipments of leather from an Italian tannery that sourced materials from the subsidiary of a Brazilian slaughterhouse that was recently fined $1 million for illegal deforestation in the Amazon.

In response to Greenpeace’s 2009 report, several brands adopted policies aimed at removing cattle raised on deforested lands from their supply chains. For example, Nike now requires 100% of its leather suppliers to source all hides from cattle raised outside the Amazon biome.

“While leather products represent a small percentage of the materials used in Nike’s business, improving the transparency and traceability of all materials in our supply chain continues to be a priority at Nike,” the company said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News.

A spokesperson for Adidas confirmed that the company still sources leather from Brazil, among other countries like the US and Argentina, and that it ensures its Brazilian suppliers do not directly contribute to deforestation through a GPS mapping system and audits of manufacturers.

Lear Corp., which now owns Eagle Ottawa, the auto leather company, said in a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News that its Brazil-based suppliers receive third-party verification that their materials do not come from newly deforested areas.

“For example, Lear’s largest supplier in Brazil is using leading edge technology to geo-fence herds to ensure sustainable practices and also is LWG (Leather Working Group) rated, the industry standard for environmental performance of leather production,” the statement said.

The company did not answer questions about who its suppliers are in Brazil.

In statements emailed to BuzzFeed News, Ford, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, and General Motors said they were committed to sustainability in their supply chains.

A spokesperson for Daimler AG, which owns Mercedes-Benz, would not comment on whether the high-end automaker is still a customer of Eagle Ottawa but said it would “increase our commitment and activities with regard to deforestation in the coming weeks.”

Representatives for Ford, Honda, and General Motors confirmed that the company is one of their leather suppliers.

“We aim for everything we make — or others make for us — is produced the right way, consistent with local law and our high standards for social responsibility, including sustainability,” Ford spokesperson John Cangany said, adding that the automaker regularly meets with suppliers to “hold them accountable for their sustainability plans and performance.”

Honda spokesperson Chris Abbruzzese told BuzzFeed News the carmaker “will investigate this matter and discuss it with our supplier.”

Representatives for BMW, Volkswagen, Subaru, and Toyota did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment. Clarks and Brighton Collectibles also did not respond.

In response to the growing outcry over the Amazon’s destruction, American apparel and footwear company VF Corp. announced last week that its brands, which include Timberland, Vans, and the North Face, will stop buying leather from Brazil “until we have the confidence and assurance that the materials used in our products do not contribute to environmental harm in the country.”

According to a spokesperson for VF, about 5% of the company’s leather is sourced from Brazil, the bulk of which is used for Timberland shoes.

Americans may also be financially supporting the cattle-driven deforestation in the Amazon as customers or shareholders of major banks and investment firms, or through retirement funds managed by companies that provide underwriting, lending, and equity investment to Brazilian beef companies.

Still, the University of Toronto’s Eduardo Souza-Rodrigues, who researches environmental economics of the Amazon, said that while consumers play a role in the destruction of the rainforest, it’s difficult to blame them because they are often unaware of the origin of the products they buy at the supermarket or mall.

“If they knew what's the origin of the product, then they could make informed decisions,” he said. “When I go to the grocery store, I don't know the origins of the beef I'm buying ... if I knew it, would I change my behavior, and it’s unclear at that stage.” ●

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