Marcel Gomes (center) with colleagues at Repórter Brasil's offices in São Paulo.

Marcel Gomes (center) with colleagues at Repórter Brasil's offices in São Paulo. Goldman Environmental Prize


Tracking Illicit Brazilian Beef from the Amazon to Your Burger

Journalist Marcel Gomes has traced beef in supermarkets and fast food restaurants in the U.S. and Europe to Brazilian ranches on illegally cleared land. In an e360 interview, he talks about the challenges of documenting the supply chains and getting companies to clean them up.

Investigative journalism can be a very deep dive. By the end of his probe into the supply chain of JBS, the world’s largest meat processing and packing company, Marcel Gomes reckons he and his team at the São Paulo-based nonprofit Repórter Brasil knew more about the origins of the beef it supplies from the Amazon to the world’s hamburger chains and supermarkets than the company itself.

With grassroots support from labor unions and Indigenous communities, he had mapped the complex networks of cattle farms responsible for illegal deforestation. He then tracked the often-illicit beef through JBS’s slaughterhouses and packing plants to the freezers, shelves, and customer trays of retail outlets and fast-food restaurants around the world. When his sleuths were done, the fingerprints of forest destruction were plain to see. Six of Europe’s biggest retail chains reacted by halting purchases of JBS beef.

That investigation just won Gomes, 45, a Goldman Environment Prize. But sadly, he says in an interview with Yale Environment 360, when he went to San Francisco last month to pick up the prize, stores there still had tainted beef on their shelves.

“We hired researchers in Europe and the U.S. to visit stores to find Brazilian beef and take pictures of the seals.”

Yale Environment 360: Why did you choose to investigate JBS?

Marcel Gomes: Well, Brazil is the world’s biggest beef exporter. My country has more than 200 million cattle, and ranching is the single biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, where more than 40 percent of the cattle are raised. JBS is our biggest beef company. It slaughters more than 12 million animals a year, exporting their meat to the United States, Europe, and across the world. And it’s not just a beef company. It exports leather — for instance to Germany, where it makes car seats — and biodiesel made from beef tallow.

e360: Can you describe how you tracked its supply chain?

Gomes: Since 2011, Brazil has had legislation intended to improve the transparency of sources of supply of beef and other agricultural commodities. So, at Repórter Brasil, which was founded in 2008, we began to collect this public data on everything related to environmental, social, and labor issues. We started to cross-check the data so we could trace supply chains right from the ranch to consumers.

Then we put this information together with data on areas where ranchers had been fined for environmental violations such as deforestation, and where there were reports of modern slavery and forced or child labor. We also used satellite images to identify which farms had seen deforestation each year, and we tapped into data on the transport of cattle from those farms to the slaughterhouses receiving the cattle.

A cattle farm in the Amazon.

A cattle farm in the Amazon. Fernando Martinho

The second part of our investigations has been the consumer market. JBS sells around the world. So, in 2021, we hired researchers in Europe and the U.S., as well as Brazil, to visit stores to find Brazilian beef and take pictures of the seals and export tracking numbers. Through those numbers, we could track back to the original packing plant where the beef came from. For us it was very important to go to the supermarkets and take pictures, and to have that clear evidence.

Then we connected both ends of the supply chain, and called everybody — the supermarkets, the slaughterhouses, the traders, JBS, the public health authorities, everyone — to tell them what we had found and ask for them to respond. Several supermarket chains in Europe believed our findings straight away and announced boycotts just as our report was published. They included Sainsbury’s in the U.K., Carrefour in Belgium, and Auchan in France. Later, others joined them.

e360: How important is your grassroots work with labor unions and Indigenous people?

Gomes: Very important. They guide us in the field to identify the ranches, and sometimes protect us from violence. They know the routes the trucks take, the names of people we can interview, and the workers who can tell inspectors about slavery. Indigenous communities especially know about the environmental impact they are suffering from the deforestation.

“We need to change the system in Brazil, to find a new way to trace the cattle moving between farms and to stop cattle laundering.”

e360: You talk about cattle laundering — raising cattle on recently deforested land, and then moving the animals to graze somewhere else for a short while to create the impression of a supply chain that doesn’t involve deforestation. Is that a big issue?

Gomes: Yes. It is common to move cattle from farm to farm in Brazil, often three or four times. There can be legitimate reasons for doing this, because cattle raising is quite a specialized business. But it can also cover up a “dirty” trail.

In theory there are rules to prevent the trading of cattle from illegal to legal areas. But in practice it is very easy to do, especially when you have several members of a family doing the same business. One brother can move cattle to the land of another brother, with no paperwork. Also, you can change the boundaries of your own land, for instance, by turning one ranch into two, one clean and the other dirty. Then you can just trade with companies like JBS from the clean part.

That “laundering” works because JBS and most of the other meat processors only keep a record of their direct supplier, the last step in the chain. So a lot of what happens before that is hidden.

A cattle farm in the Amazon.

A cattle farm in the Amazon. Fernando Martinho

e360: Until your investigations. I am guessing that by the end of your research, you knew a lot more about the JBS supply chain than JBS did. Am I right?

Gomes: Yes. I can say that is possible. We were monitoring the supply chain from the first ranch, which we know they didn’t do.

e360: I wonder why not. Is cattle laundering something that the companies have encouraged, or do they turn a blind eye, or maybe it is ignorance that happened almost by accident?

Gomes: Well, I don’t know. But if, in the future, companies [such as JBS] decide to eliminate the dirty part of their supply chain, they will lose a big market share. So there are business reasons not to monitor the whole supply chain. We need to change the system in Brazil, to find a new way to trace the cattle moving between farms and to stop cattle laundering. Without that, we won’t have JBS and other companies operating in a sustainable way.

e360: Did JBS ever try to prevent your findings from being published?

Gomes: They have in the past. But in the last few years they have been more responsive, as the media and NGOs have used the information we have gathered to pressure them. We have a dialogue now. We send them the result of our investigations, and they provide us with information. They have also started to remove ranches from their supply chain.

“Companies like McDonald’s make statements saying they have dialogues with their suppliers. But we don’t see any big change.”

e360: What about the federal government now that Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] is back as president?

Gomes: The government agencies listen to us. There are a lot of meetings. Things are happening, but it is hard. And there is also a lot of politics. We do find that, under Lula, farmers are abiding by the laws more, however. Deforestation rates in the Amazon have decreased in the last year and a half, since Lula returned to power. But we still have a big problem in the cerrado, the big savanna region to the south and east [of the Amazon]. You can still legally clear 80 percent of the trees on your land there. That needs to change.

e360: JBS has promised to clean up its cattle supply chain by, for instance, eliminating deforestation by direct suppliers by 2030 and from its indirect suppliers by 2035. Can it achieve those targets?

Gomes: If they properly monitor their indirect suppliers then, yes, it is possible. But right now they are still really involved in illegal deforestation in different parts of Brazil.

Of course, if they exclude all suppliers with environmental nonconformities they are going to lose a lot of them. So it will take time to reshape their business, and I cannot see a big change yet.

A JBS facility in Tucuma, Brazil.

A JBS facility in Tucuma, Brazil. Jonne Roriz / Bloomberg via Getty Images

e360: How about JBS’s customers? Some big European retailers have reacted to your revelations by banning or distancing themselves from JBS. Have you had the same response in the U.S.?

Gomes: No, it didn’t happen. Nor in Brazil either. But they say they want more information from JBS about the issues. So at least we know the company’s supply chain is being monitored more by retailers. Fast food companies like McDonald’s and Burger King make statements saying they have dialogues with their suppliers. But we don’t see any big change in selecting or eliminating suppliers.

e360: What about JBS’s banks and investors?

Gomes: A few days ago, a group of Indigenous peoples held a meeting with one of JBS’s banks in Brazil to talk about how the company is buying cattle raised illegally inside their lands.

We [at Repórter Brasil] also have partnerships with NGOs abroad that target banks. In France, for instance, we provided information for a lawsuit brought last year against, among others, BNP Paribas, the largest banking group in the world, over potentially funding illegal deforestation by JBS in Brazil.

“We did the first investigations in Brazil of slave labor in the cattle, soy, coffee, and orange-juice industries… Cattle came out badly.”

e360: What about modern slavery, such as forced and child labor? That is another issue you have investigated, I think.

Gomes: Yes. We did the first investigations in Brazil of slave labor in the cattle, soy, coffee, and orange-juice industries. We mapped the supply chains of supermarkets and fast food chains to see if they are connected to farms or other places with slave labor.

Cattle came out badly. We found that of the 55,000 workers who had been released by government inspectors from slave conditions since 1995, about a third were in the cattle industry. Most of the people involved in deforestation for cattle are enslaved people.

e360: What else are you working on?

Gomes: We concentrate on investigating the supply chains of Brazilian commodities that are of interest to our campaigning partners in other parts of the world. For instance, we have looked at the labor practices of orange growers supplying juice to soft-drinks companies such as Coca-Cola, who sell on to McDonald’s among many others.

Late last year we published a report about Starbucks, showing that some of its coffee suppliers were responsible for serious human rights abuses. That contradicted the company’s claim to have 100 percent ethical sourcing. The report is now being used in a lawsuit against Starbucks in the U.S. Starbucks is now engaging over that, which is nice.

e360: In 10 years, what do you think you will be working on? Where will things stand?

Gomes: I don’t think Brazil will be a lot better. We will still see a lot of problems. We are making progress, but I don’t think I will be able to retire. There will be plenty more to investigate.