Brazilian Meat Producer Becomes Global Powerhouse

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Brazilian meat producer JBS is cornering the worldwide meat market by buying up companies from the United States to Australia to Italy. How does JBS, perhaps more than any other company, reflects the power of the new Brazil?

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In Brazil, maybe no other company embodies the country's rapid economic expansion better than the big meat producer JBS. The company is run out of an old slaughterhouse in Sao Paolo and it now controls a huge slice of the worldwide meat market. It is also one of the biggest meat producers in the United States.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Lins Brazil.

JUAN FORERO: It all starts on ranches like Santa Izabel in southern Brazil, an 8,000-acre spread of soft green hills run by Edson Crochiquia.

(Soundbite of cows)

FORERO: He's nearing 70, but Crochiquia loves to tour his ranch on horseback, keeping track of a herd of 6,500 head of cattle.

Mr. EDSON CROCHIQUIA (Santa Izabel Ranch): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: What we're seeing, Crochiquia says, is a rotational system. The cattle graze in one field for three days, then move to another - eating grass for a year and a half before being shipped here to the meat plant in Lins.

(Soundbite of whistling)

FORERO: In a corral just outside the slaughterhouse, JBS's herders whistle and wave their hats.

(Soundbite of whistling)

FORERO: Their goal is the nudge the cattle down a narrow chute and into the big white building.

Bassem Akl Akl, the plant manager, says the idea is not to panic the animals in the minutes before slaughter.

Mr. BASSEM AKL AKL (JBS Plant Manager): Now, if you handle the animal in the wrong way, all right, you get the animal stressed. That is not good. So it's very important to keep the animal calm.

FORERO: Few Americans have ever heard of JBS, but it's not only one of Brazil's top companies, but the most important producer of beef, chicken and pork in the United States. That's because JBS grew from a one billion a year company a decade ago into a $40 billion Goliath. It did so in part by buying big American companies like Swift, a beef and pork processor, and Pilgrim's Pride, which produces chicken.

Not everyone in American cattle country is happy about it.

Mr. BILL BULLARD (President, R-Calf USA): Well, we believe it is a very aggressive company that truly is attempting to dominate the protein market globally.

KNOX: That's Bill Bullard, president of R-Calf USA, a group representing American cattle ranchers. He says JBS and other big meat packers like Tyson and Cargill are squelching competition.

Mr. BULLARD: And that has contributed to the alarming exodus of cattle producers in the United States.

FORERO: JBS says it brings efficiencies that are passed down to consumers. The Justice Department has investigated JBS, but it's approved most of the company's acquisitions of beef processors, feed lots, and chicken plants.

JBS has also bought plants in Argentina, Australia, Italy, and other countries. The company now slaughters 90,000 head of cattle a day, exports to 150 countries, and controls a quarter of the worldwide trade in beef. Quite an accomplishment for a company that started small, very small.

Wesley Batista is the chief executive, one of six siblings who help run the company their father started in 1953.

Mr. WESLEY BATISTA (Chief Executive, JBS): He started slaughtering one head per day, and selling this beef for the workers that was working to build our capital in Brazilia(ph).

FORERO: But just like Brazil itself, Batista says, the company grew. He sees even more potential because meat consumption in emerging countries is projected to grow 20 percent by 2018.

Mr. BATISTA: And we are seeing the amount picking up in Brazil, in China, in Russia, in a lot of countries in the Middle East.

FORERO: Here at the Lins meat plant, workers slice away on a fast-moving assembly line.

(Soundbite of assembly line)

FORERO: Akl Akl, the plant manager, says workers have to be proficient with a knife.

Mr. AKL AKL: So that's where we are taking the beef from the bone. We have two different lines, one line for front(ph) quarter, and the second line for hind quarter.

FORERO: In all, 900 head of cattle will come through here on a typical day, to wind up as corned beef canned for export to Britain, or as neatly sliced cuts of tenderloin bound for Sao Paolo's gourmet markets. Wherever the meat goes, though, JBS can be sure of one thing: a market hungry for beef.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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